It was at once the most satisfying and most difficult of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s seven championship seasons.
In 1994, Earnhardt won his seventh – and last – title, accomplishing a feat few thought possible. He tied Richard Petty, who had retired in 1992, for most series championships. Sixteen years later, they remain tied atop that category.
The championship is remarkable in another way in that it was the last won by team owner Richard Childress, who combined with Earnhardt for six titles (Earnhardt’s first championshp came with team owner Rod Osterlund).
Childress will be seeking to end that championship drought Sunday with Kevin Harvick, the driver who replaced Earnhardt in RCR’s lead Chevrolet after Earnhardt’s death in the February 2001 Daytona 500. It has taken almost a decade for the team to return to true championship caliber.
“Richard and I have been through a lot together,” Harvick said. “We’ve talked about what we have to do to get to this point. Whether we win or lose this year, we’ve taken a huge step towards achieving those goals and put ourselves as a company back in contention to what looks to be hopefully consistency as we go forward to racing for championships.
“It’s taken a while. We’ve been there sporadically from ’03 to ’06, but we didn’t step it up when it was time like we feel we’ve gotten better in the last 10 weeks this year. It’s what we want to achieve as an organization. And Richard has been there at this level. I think all the pieces are there to do that. It’s just about making it all happen.”
The record books show that Earnhardt won the 1994 title by 444 points over Mark Martin. He clinched the championship at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham with two races to go.
The backstory to the last championship won by Earnhardt, and by Childress, involves much more than the statistics, however. The year was one of turmoil for Earnhardt and those around him.
In February, driver Neil Bonnett, one of Earnhardt’s closest friends, died in a crash while practicing at Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt took the loss as a knife to the stomach and, in fact, late in the season said he wasn’t sure he would be able to race at high-performance levels during the year because of his grief over Bonnett’s death.
Then, 20 races into the season, Earnhardt’s world was slammed again when Ernie Irvan, another in the tight-knit circle of Earnhardt associates, was critically injured in a crash at Michigan International Speedway.
Earnhardt and Irvan were involved in a very tight race at the top of the points, but attention suddenly shifted from that competition to fears that Irvan would not survive the accident. He did, eventually returning to race and to win in later seasons, but the ’94 point chase soon became one dominated by Earnhardt.
By season’s end, Earnhardt had run away with the championship, but the dark clouds of the year persevered.
“Neil’s death, in particular, had a major impact on him,” said Danny Lawrence, then an RCR assistant engine builder and now the at-track manager of engine operations for Earnhardt Childress Engines. “Dale had a lot of friends, but he had only a handful of really close friends, and Neil was one of them. I know he told Neil that he probably should think more about that deal. But Neil wanted to drive. I think Dale might have thought he should have pushed him a little harder.
“When Ernie got hurt, it was a big deal, too. We won the thing by over 400 points over Mark Martin, but we were back and forth, back and forth with Ernie. That thing was devastating for everybody. We were just happy that Ernie was OK.”
Will Lind, who changed tires on Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet from 1983 to 1993, transitioned to Childress’ new Truck Series operation in 1994 but also worked as a mechanic on the Cup side of the shop. He now works on the business side of the RCR competition department.
“The championship was Dale’s goal every year,” Lind said. “Losing it was always a big thing. He didn’t take it for granted. The time has just flown by since then. It seems like I just quit changing tires, but it’s been almost 20 years.”
And it’s been far too long since that last RCR title.
“We’ve actually had a legitimate shot at it, but we need to be able to do it,” Lind said. “You’re not taken seriously as a contender year after year if you don’t win championships.”
Lawrence said the team didn’t appreciate winning the six RCR titles as much as it should have.
“Back in the day, we’d go to victory lane, and we’d actually tell the people to hurry up and get our pictures made,” he said. “We had to get out of there to tear everything down. We didn’t savor the moment.
“Dale used to tell us that we were making history, and we really didn’t think about it. We didn’t know the days were as good as what they were. We worked hard, but we had things going our way pretty good.
“After Dale was killed, it was pretty rewarding knowing how close we were to him.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.