Book excerpt: Dale Earnhardt's final win at Talladega was his most thrilling

Dale Earnhardt Sr. behind the wheel. (Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Sr. behind the wheel. (Getty Images)

EARNHARDT NATION, the complete biography of the Earnhardt family, written by Yahoo Sports’ Jay Busbee, is now out in paperback. In this exclusive excerpt, relive The Intimidator’s last great moment: his astounding come-from-behind white-knuckle victory at Talladega in 2000.

The fall Talladega race in 2000 marked a transitional moment for the sport. A settlement with the federal government severely restricted tobacco companies’ ability to market their products. The 2000 Winston 500 would mark the last time that a regular-season Cup race would carry title sponsorship from Winston.

October 15, 2000, was one of those classic Alabama fall Sundays, the sky wide, bright, and blue enough to touch, the flags in the infield rippling in a faint breeze. There was hope in the Alabama air; a hundred or so miles to the west, a generally woeful Bama football team had just thumped rival Ole Miss 45–7. Outside Alabama, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning were suiting up for NFL games.

At Talladega, more than 170,000 fans filed, stumbled, or were dragged into the stands and infield. Joe Nemecheck had won the pole, and he led a field that ran smoothly and caution-free for the first 104 laps of the 188-lap race. Junior actually managed to lead the very first lap, but no more. Stewart, Gordon, Kenseth, and many others took a turn at the front; in all, there were forty-nine lead changes during the race.

There are two strategies at Talladega, and whichever one you choose, the other one usually turns out to be the better option. You can ride around in the back of the pack, hoping to avoid the inevitable chaos that comes from a dozen-car wreck euphemistically termed the Big One. The risk is that you’ll be too far behind to make a move and challenge for the lead when you need to. Or you can race around in front, knowing that you’re only a couple of degrees on the steering wheel from getting caught in a major pileup.

Earnhardt ended up stuck with the former option. He’d qualified twentieth, and spent most of the afternoon back there as Bill Elliott, Junior, and others traded the lead. With less than twenty laps remaining, a wreck collected Martin and three other cars. After the requisite cleanup, the race restarted with fifteen laps remaining. Earnhardt was stuck deep in the pack, restarting in eighteenth.

As long as your car is running at Talladega, you have a shot at the win. One route to the checkers was a since-discontinued practice called tandem drafting, in which two cars bunch up nose-to-bumper and force their way forward, two cars being faster than one alone. The teamwork lasts until the final turn. Both the front and rear cars have weaknesses; the rear car can overheat, while the front car can suddenly lose speed when the back car releases to push ahead—the so-called slingshot move.

Earnhardt began slithering through the pack, heedless of anything but the clean air in front of him. Kenny Wallace followed Earnhardt’s lead, and before long, Earnhardt had forced his way right up to the front of the pack.

“How did he get through those cars?” ESPN commentator Benny Parsons said in disbelief. “How did he do that?” ESPN’s cameras followed the black Goodwrench No. 3 on every turn, and on every turn it seemed Earnhardt had put another car behind him.

Cars stacked up four wide, then five wide as tension mounted. Every driver needed to make precision moves; one mistake on a turn could send the entire pack pinwheeling around. Nerves rode high, hearts choked throats, fear and anticipation hung in the air. In other words, it was Earnhardt’s time.

“He’s beaten and scraped,” ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch said as cameras showed the side of the battered No. 3. “He will not be denied.”

Coming around to the white flag marking one lap remaining, Earnhardt’s teammate Mike Skinner was in first, with Junior second. Junior wobbled and slid down to the apron, losing his chance at victory. Earnhardt took a shove from Wallace to get past Skinner and out into the beloved clean air. From there, it was all over. Wallace was on Earnhardt’s bumper but couldn’t close.

Earnhardt won the race over Wallace by 0.119 seconds, four times shorter than the blink of an eye. (It wasn’t anywhere near the closest finish in Talladega history; in 2011, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by 0.002 seconds.) As he took his victory lap, one huge fist stuck out the window in exultation, he passed brightly colored wreckage, the smoke rising from the cars’ engines a fitting backdrop.

“Unbelievable,” Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s team owner, said just after the checkered flag flew. “The race fans today got the race they deserved.” The statistics told the story of a special race: with twenty-one drivers taking the lead forty-nine times, the day saw the most lead changes and most leaders in a race at Talladega in more than a decade.

Normally when a driver wins a race, a few scattered fans, some corporate guests, and the team wait for him in Victory Lane. On this day, the crowd ran two and three deep from the track all the way to Victory Lane. Earnhardt pumped his fist as he crawled past the crowd, then climbed out of his car into a blizzard of confetti. He hoisted crew chief Kevin Hamlin, who was suffering from an injured back, up onto the window ledge of the No. 3, mischievously slapping Hamlin’s back and side all the way. To his credit, Hamlin kept his composure but hastily climbed down.

“It was wild,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “I didn’t have any thought that I had any chance of winning this race, starting where I did on that restart. Boy, as we kept working away and got on the outside of Kenny . . . Kenny Wallace really worked hard with us and he done a good job. I don’t think we could have gotten back up there without Kenny.”

After he took a sponsor-mandated swig from a bottle of Coke, he delivered the kicker: “I hated to beat Mike Skinner, but I had to beat him for a million,” he said, referring to a Winston program that paid a million dollars to drivers who met certain conditions while winning certain races. The Winston No-Bull 5 promised a million dollars to any driver who finished in the top five at one of five races that year—Daytona, Las Vegas, the Coca-Cola
600, Richmond, and Talladega—and won the next. Earnhardt had finished second at Richmond.

“This is the first time I’ve ever won it.” Earnhardt smiled. “I’ve been close a couple times, but never won it. It’ll be good going to Vegas with a million bucks in my pocket, huh?” The Winston 500 marked Earnhardt’s seventy-sixth win, and his tenth Winston Cup victory at Talladega.

“If you were a NASCAR fan, you loved this,” Punch said as the telecast wrapped. “If you weren’t one, you became one today.”

EARNHARDT NATION is on sale now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and book retailers nationwide.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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