Even now, 10 years after it happened, it still defies belief how Dale Earnhardt won his 76th and final NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Maybe his final, remarkable victory was proof after all that in a superspeedway draft at 190 miles per hour, Earnhardt really could see the air.
The scene was Talladega Superspeedway, and the date was Oct. 15, 2000. Earnhardt had qualified his familiar and menacing black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo in 20th place for the Winston 500, the final restrictor-plate race of the season.
As always, the Talladega grandstands were jammed full of members of the Earnhardt Nation, untold thousands who had come to see just one thing: Their hero win his 10th Talladega race. But with four laps to go, they appeared headed for bitter disappointment, as Earnhardt was buried way back in 18th place, having just bounced off of Rich Bickle’s car and seemingly trapped in a sea of race cars on all four sides of him, surrounding the black No. 3.
But suddenly, seeming out of nowhere, Earnhardt charged forward, parting the field like Moses parting the Red Sea, and with Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek behind him, Earnhardt charged forward in the closing laps. The Talladega grandstands exploded in a thunder of applause as Earnhardt methodically worked his way through the traffic.
“I don’t understand how he did that!” shouted Benny Parsons, who was doing the television commentary.
As the cars came to the white flag, RCR’s Mike Skinner had the lead on the bottom lane, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind him. But up top, it was the elder Earnhardt, with Wallace pushing him for everything he was worth and Nemechek holding sway behind them.
As they went around for the final time, Skinner’s challenge faded and the top three pulled away. Earnhardt crossed the line the winner, claiming the $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus money in addition to his race earnings. It was a display of shock and awe perhaps never equaled in a Cup race, one that left the fans dazed and delighted in their disbelief. The noise from the grandstands was deafening as Earnhardt crossed the start-finish line.
On pit road, team owner Richard Childress was so happy that he grabbed crewman Danny Lawrence and kissed him on the cheek. “The race fans got the race they deserved today,” said Childress. “This is for the race fans.”
Childress was as stunned as anyone as the applause continued from the 170,000 race fans. “He never gave up,” Childress said of his driver.
“It was wild,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “I didn’t have any thought that I have a 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 got back up there without Kenny.”
It was Wallace’s push that drove Earnhardt past Skinner for the victory. “I hate to beat Mike Skinner, but I had to beat him for a million,” Earnhardt said.
“It was a chess game of getting there and staying there and it just worked out for us to be there at the right time,” Earnhardt said.
“It was just a deal where it was vintage,” said Wallace, teammate of third-place finisher Nemechek at Andy Petree Racing. “Here I am trying to win the race ... he comes down in front of me and I’m thinking, ‘My God, I’ve got no choice now but to help this guy win.’”
Afterwards, there was no way anyone could have known it would be Earnhardt’s final visit to victory lane. Nor would anyone who witnessed it ever forget what they saw as The Intimidator worked his magic one last time.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.