How Dale Earnhardt Helped Brett Bodine Capture His Only NASCAR Cup Victory

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Mike Pryson
·5 min read
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Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

Brett Bodine’s only NASCAR Cup Series victory came in large part thanks to help from Dale Earnhardt during the April 1990 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Granted, it’s possible the middle of the racing Bodine brothers might have won, anyway, but Earnhardt’s unwitting help shouldn’t be dismissed.

It happened like this:

Earnhardt passed Bodine for the lead with about 150 laps remaining in the 400-lapper. From that position, Bodine watched as Earnhardt took an unorthodox line into Turn 1 at the 5/8th-mile track. (The long-closed facility went dramatically downhill into Turns 1-2, then uphill into Turns 3-4). Bodine was better than Earnhardt in 3-4, but significantly worse in 1-2. Overall, their cars were close to even; Earnhardt’s undeniable talent was the tiebreaker.

“Thank God he passed me because he took me to school in 1 and 2,” Bodine recently told Autoweek, speaking of the seven-time champion and five-time North Wilkesboro winner. “I had the best car after about 20 laps, but don’t know if I could have beaten him without learning a better line into 1 and 2. His super-exaggerated line showed me where I was making a mistake and losing time. Instead of running low and turning early like everybody else, he was staying out (on the frontstretch) a little longer, then turning in later. That gave him a straighter and quicker exit out of Turn 2 and up the backstretch, into 3.

Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images
Photo credit: RacingOne - Getty Images

“It was like night and day when I began following him and taking that same line. I began gaining each lap, getting as good as he was at that end of the track. Before that, he was killing me over there. There aren’t many race-car drivers who’ll admit they learned something off somebody else, but I absolutely learned something that day. Dale taught me how to drive the track, and that helped me win that day. There I was, this little ‘ol farm boy from upstate New York getting his first win in the top-level of racing in the United States. Man, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Bodine was early in his first season with NHRA legend/team owner Kenny Bernstein on that pleasant Sunday afternoon. After two mediocre seasons with Hall of Fame owner Bud Moore, he’d joined Bernstein and crew chief Larry McReynolds for the 1990-1991 seasons in the No. 26 Quaker State-sponsored Buick. Ricky Rudd and McReynolds had won for the team at Watkins Glen in 1988 and Sears Point in 1989, leaving it to Bodine to deliver its first oval-track victory.

The team had an unsteady start to 1990: two top-10s in their first six starts, two more top-20s, and two finishes in the 20s. Unimpressive to be sure, but at least the top-10s at Richmond and Martinsville showed some potential. That potential turned into reality when Bodine started 20th, led twice for 146 laps, and won the 400-lapper by almost a second over an unconvinced Darrell Waltrip, then Earnhardt, Rudd, and Morgan Shepherd.

“I went into that race very confident because I liked the track,” Bodine said years later. “Confidence is everything, and I was confident we’d have a good weekend. I was good in every practice, which is why I was so disappointed in qualifying 20th. I couldn’t have done a worse job and was really mad at myself. But Larry said to be stay patient and work my way forward because we had a great car. I was fast right from the start, moving up and fighting for every position. He was good at keeping me within myself.

Photo credit: Brian Cleary - Getty Images
Photo credit: Brian Cleary - Getty Images

“I don’t think anybody noticed us during Friday and Saturday practice. Crews on pit road were clocking drivers with their stopwatches, but I doubt anyone was looking at us. We were dialed in, but still snuck up on people. If there had been an underdog list, we weren’t even on it. But I wasn’t surprised because (owing to his Modified career) I was a better short-track driver. I had Wilkesboro circled on my schedule because I was looking forward to it. I felt really good driving to the track that morning.”

A lengthy scoring dispute muddled the ending, leading some to say Bodine had not won. (NASCAR acknowledged some questions, but ultimately stood by its final decision). The confusion began when McReynolds chose to short-pit and sacrifice track position in the final 100 laps to regain it—and then some—when everyone else pitted later. The picture grew hazy when some frontrunners pitted under green and others pitted under the final yellow. Things became chaotic when timing and scoring directed pace car driver Elmo Langley to pick up Earnhardt as the leader when it should have been Bodine.

During a 13-lap “scoring review caution” Langley waved around the lead-lap cars except Bodine, who was finally repositioned as leader for the last restart. (An ESPN replay shows Bodine regaining the point as Earnhardt leaves the pits under caution, only to be briefly scored as the leader). Waltrip passed Earnhardt on the final restart and closed on Bodine, but fell short by about a second. Bodine led the last 83 laps, then endured another scoring review until chief scorer Morris Metcalfe made the call that Waltrip has not accepted to this day.

“Darrell was … well, Darrell was just being Darrell,” Bodine said, choosing his words carefully. “He was never shy about expressing his opinion about anything. He and (crew chief) Jeff Hammond got the ears of a lot of people (regarding the scoring), and we still argue about it. But look at the video tape. There’s no question I won the race.”

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories by Autoweek senior motorsports writer Al Pearce on the first wins in the NASCAR Cup Series for some of the sport's great personalities. Who would you like Al to track down for you? Let us know in the comments section below.