As I grew up in the 90s, the memories of races now gone by are more clear in my mind. I remember watching Dale Earnhardt win the 1993 Winston All-Star race with my mom. I remember later that year watching the Die Hard 500 at Talladega, Alabama at my grandmother’s two weeks after driver Davey Allison had died in a helicopter crash. In that race, Jimmy Horton’s car flew over the wall early and towards the closing stages of the race, Neil Bonnett’s car flipped through the tri-oval. Fortunately, both drivers were okay. I remember Earnhardt beating Ernie Irvan to the start/finish line by inches; it was a great race on a very tense day. In 1995, Earnhardt was going for his first win on a road course track at Sears Point. I watched the race at my grandmother’s for a while before I decided I wanted to go home and watch it. Earnhardt won the race and another otherwise insignificant piece of history of what I was doing that day was etched into my memory.
In the Labor Day Southern 500 at Darlington in 1996, Lake Speed who was now my second favorite driver behind Earnhardt had a car capable of winning the race. Speed started toward the back of the field but quickly worked his way to the front. Unfortunately in the early part of the race Speed cut down a tire and had to pit under the green flag. I was so upset that I cried. I knew Lake had a chance at the win and I wanted it for him so badly. Now it wasn’t going to happen. Speed and his crew did not give up though. They fought to get their car back from two laps down to have a respectable finish. In the last fifty laps, Lake made his way to the top ten and with ten laps to go he passed eventual race winner Jeff Gordon to get one of his laps back. Speed finished ninth. I was happy for the good finished but I was and still am upset that he had the cut tire. Had that not happened, I firmly believe that Lake would have been up front at the race’s end. In racing, most times as a fan you’re going to end up being disappointed because your driver is not always going to win.
1997 is a year that I do not like to talk about much less think about. For the first time in a long time, Dale Earnhardt did not win a single race. People thought he was done as a driver, that he should retire, that he was too old. February 16, 1998 brought new hope for Earnhardt and his fans including I. The Daytona 500 was to kick off the season again and it would be Earnhardt’s twentieth try at winning the event. The race started off as normal, Earnhardt ran up front as he always did. He led some but mostly was just riding around waiting to show what his car really had. After the race’s halfway point, Dale began to push the car harder and led more. With a little more than twenty laps to go, Dale took the lead and did not let it go. He fought off hard competition from Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield among others. With two laps remaining off of turn two, a quirk happened for me when John Andretti and Speed were involved in a spin. Earnhardt fought off Mayfield and Bobby Labonte to take the caution flag and the white flag at the same time. The next lap, he took the checkered flag and the win… finally. I remember standing up jumping up and down clapping and yelling. My dad was clapping. My dad’s friend Donald gave high-fives and repeated over and over, “Finally! Finally!” Tears came from my eyes when Dale made his way down pit road for victory lane but was held up. He was being saluted by just about every pit crew member from every team.
In August of 1999, I was watching a race at Ukiah, California and missed one of the all-time great Dale Earnhardt moments. On the last lap of the race, Earnhardt got into the back of Terry Labonte who ended up wrecking. Earnhardt won the race and in his post race interview he stated that he only meant to “rattle his cage.” In March of 2000 from my grandmother’s couch, Earnhardt won at Atlanta, Georgia beating Bobby Labonte by literally inches. September of that year Earnhardt pulled off one of the greatest wins in racing history moving from eighteenth place to first and the eventual win in the last five laps of the race at Talladega. Again, I was at my grandma’s house, my brother was also watching with us. As I saw where Dale was positioned with five laps to go I thought it was all over and I was pulling for his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to win. As the laps clicked off, I saw Dale’s black number three moving his way to the front in a hurry and thought to myself, “he might have a chance.” With one lap to go, he grabbed it and held onto it. As Dale crossed the line my grandma was saying, “I can’t believe it.” I was jumping up and down with exhilaration, my brother who pays attention to racing but isn’t a diehard fan of it said, “That’s pretty cool.” Sadly, it would be Dale’s last win.
Sunday February 18, 2001 is one of the worst days in my entire life. It started off as so many other Daytona 500 Sundays had in the past, I was excited at the chances for a victory for Dale in the race. The race itself was one of the best. There was a lot of passing and side by side racing and as usual, Dale was up front and challenging for the win. Towards the race’s end, Dale was running third behind two cars that he owned driven by Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jr. With one lap to go, it seemed as if it would be a 1-2-3 Earnhardt finish with Waltrip winning, Earnhardt, Jr. second and Earnhardt third. It wasn’t to be. Sterling Marlin had a run on the inside of Dale going into the third turn and Dale tried to fend him off. Unfortunately, Dale didn’t realize that Marlin was under him and it turned his car down then back up the race track head on into the wall. Meanwhile, Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jr. crossed the finish line first and second; Waltrip’s first ever win.