On February 18, 2001 the sport of NASCAR lost its superstar and a legion of fans were stunned. They gathered immediately to mourn, not just some redneck NASCAR fans, but a fans from around the world.
Over the years these fans, still staunch in their support and rabid fandom, fly flags, wear the #3 proudly, and delight in retelling the tales of the man’s on track actions that led to his immense and enormous popularity.
His fans, in fact, never forget. Although many are still NASCAR fans supporting Earnhardt’s son Dale Jr., his successor at Richard Childress Racing Kevin Harvick, or some other shoe, they are and always will be fans of Dale Earnhardt first and foremost.
Many of these fans have found a community online on pages dedicated to their driver on Facebook. I, too, belong to these pages as I am a Dale Earnhardt fan for life.
I’ve written about Dale Earnhardt many times in my career. For the first time I have polled my fellow fans for the reasons they loved this iconic driver. These are the collective stories of the myriad reasons Dale Earnhardt continues to be their all-time favorite.
“Mine is the 1998 Daytona 500 I reckon you’ll hear that a lot.”
And hear it a lot I did, but for darn good reason. After 19 attempts to win the Great American Race, the 20th was the charm. In 1998, with Larry McReynolds as crew chief, Earnhardt won the race that had eluded him his entire career.
As Bonnie Phillips Huntley said, “Feb. 15, 1998 the day he won Daytona!
Randy Cihlar recalled, “When Dale won Daytona, ‘We won it, we won it, we won it!’ 3 fan forever.”
Christopher Runyan said, “Of course the ride down pit row after winning the Daytona 500!
Steve Phillips agreed, “Probably when he finally won the Daytona 500 after 20 long years of trying and many near misses.”
Pamela Brown remembers, “My favorite moment was when Dale Sr. Won the Daytona 500 and ALL the pit crews lined up to congratulate him. That was AWESOME!!!”
For many others, there were several answers. Arguably the most devoted Dale Earnhardt fan on the planet, Joe Farinella answered this query easily.
“Winning Daytona will always be the one for us. But for me my greatest memory was Talladega 2000 his last win where he came from 18th to 1rst in the last 5 laps to win the race. With 5 laps to go and seeing him in 18th place we were all hoping he would just crack the Top Ten but out of nowhere here he came right to the front passing 17 cars in 5 laps. He was all over the place and his superspeedway car at the end looked like he just got out of Bristol. To me that race was who he was. He never quit or gave up he was always giving his all and going to the front no matter what. I still have to watch the DVD to believe what he did there. He had just done the unbelievable. No one could ever do what he could do in a race car and the ending to that race really showed that. Unfortunately that would be his last win but man what a memory.”
Brian Nethery recalled, “His last win at Talladega was pretty special, he was running 18-20th with 4 laps to go and drove his way through the field for the win, his last win!! When he came out of the pack to take the lead, the #3 was rubbed off the right side and a tire doughnut on the driver’s door, I loved that!! That was Earnhardt, he never quit!! Plus he won a No Bull 5 fan a million dollars that day with his win.”
Michael Flood was there so it colors his list putting it near the top. Christopher Runyan, Randy E. Cihlar, Michael McHone, Lisa Habermehl, and Josh Grambart all agree that Earnhardt’s last win at Talladega in 2000 ranks up there as one of his very best.
The win at Talladega in 2000 was Earnhardt’s last win, but other fans pointed out that winning the Rookie of the Year in 1979 and following that up with a first championship in 1980 deserves to make the list.
Steven Burns put winning ROTY on his list and Bill Davis mentioned the championship that followed.
For some it was the much heralded “Pass in the Grass” at the 1987 All-Star Race that fires up the passion for Earnhardt.
Jim Schott enthusiastically offered up this event. Chad Ray Green agreed.
Bill Davis corrected by reminding, “There was no pass in the grass. It was a pass through the grass. He was already leading. Impressive anyway you look at it.”
Billy Dowdy summed it up, “The Pass in the Grass has to be one of the best!”
Then there are those who enjoyed Earnhardt best when he earned his “The Intimidator” nickname.
Billy Dowdy brought up, “Bristol for a short track…he wrecked Terry Labonte to go on and win the race…during the interview Sr. says I didn’t aim to wreck him, just meant to Rattle his Cage…”
Steve N Tina Williamson agreed, “…when he got into Terry LaBonte at Bristol 1999, “I didn’t try to wreck him, I just tried to rattle his cage.”
Brian Scott Gregory loves that one, too.
There were countless others the Dale fans I polled mentioned. Buddy Jones recalled watching Earnhardt race at Richmond in the spring of 1998. “What I liked about it was just the enjoyment of getting to see him race live instead of on TV.”
Whether the fans were fortunate enough to see Dale Earnhardt race live or simply watched him on television, their memories are emblazoned with a championship, a hero, and a passionate racer who didn’t like to lose.
As fan Billy Dowdy summed up:
“Reading what we all have wrote it is easy to see why we miss Dale…If it was getting his autograph or watching him on TV or in person we knew once he strapped those dark shades on it was like superman putting his cape on…Dale was our driver …our Hero…to most there will never be another like him …As every season kicks off it brings back the memories of the man in black dominating the race track… So as we watch Daytona I’m sure we will say to our friends do you remember when Dale did this or Dale did that cause he was the man in Black…3 for Life.”
Amen, Billy, Amen.