Intimidator Ruled Through the Years at Darlington
No wonder the driver known as the “Man in Black” and the track often dubbed the “Lady in Black” had such an enduring love affair.
When most of his competitors dreaded coming to the 1.366-mile South Carolina track, Earnhardt embraced the challenge. That’s because Darlington – with its narrow racing groove, abrasive surface and abnormally small margin for driver error – suited ol’ Ironhead’s style to a tee.
And it showed in his performance. Earnhardt scored nine of his 76 Sprint Cup Series wins at the track “Too Tough To Tame.” Only at Talladega Superspeedway, where he triumphed 10 times, did Earnhardt taste victory in more points-paying events.
All of Earnhardt’s Darlington wins came between 1982 and 1994, the year of his seventh and final Sprint Cup Series title. Although he didn’t win in his last 13 starts at Darlington, Earnhardt was usually in contention. He recorded six top-fives over that stretch, including a pair of third-place finishes in 2000.
His career ended in a fatal crash on the last lap of the next year’s Daytona 500.
Only the legendary David Pearson – with a record 10 checkered flags at Darlington – and Jeff Gordon – with seven Darlington trophies – are usually mentioned in the same breath with Earnhardt in terms of consistent excellence at the tricky egg-shaped oval.
“He pretty well had it – I wouldn’t say mastered Darlington because I don’t think anybody ever mastered it – but he had a pretty good grip on it,” said ESPN NASCAR analyst Andy Petree, who served as Earnhardt’s crew chief for his last two Darlington victories.
“So I think he felt like when he went to Darlington there were fewer guys that he had to beat and he felt like he was one of the guys, if not the guy, to beat there. So I think he really liked Darlington a lot.”
After conquering Darlington for the first time driving a Bud Moore-owned blue and yellow Wrangler Ford in spring 1982, Earnhardt waited four more years to return to the track’s Winner’s Circle.
When he finally did, The Intimidator virtually made it his second home. Following a victory in the spring 1986 event, Earnhardt prevailed twice in the next three Darlington races and notched his first SHOWTIME Southern 500 triumph in fall 1987. His next three Darlington triumphs came in succession, beginning with the 1989 SHOWTIME Southern 500 and culminating with a sweep of the track’s two races in 1990.
Earnhardt’s 1990 SHOWTIME Southern 500 win came from the pole. Earnhardt claimed his last two Darlington checkered flags in spring 1993 and spring 1994.
It’s that 1993 win that stands out the most to Petree, who led Earnhardt’s team from 1993-1995.
“It was our first win together and we’d struggled a little bit with our communication,” Petree said. “I think that might have been our fifth race together. And the first few there, we were struggling with how we were communicating with each other, and really, kind of how we were getting along. We were butting heads big-time because I was used to running a race team my way and basically being the guy that’s running it. And he was head-strong. We were a lot alike actually. (Team owner Richard) Childress had sort of been forced to say, ‘Look, you guys have got to get along if this is going to work.’ I think Childress called it, ‘bonding.’
“But we started that deal at Darlington and it was kind of like we turned over a new leaf after the first four races and said, ‘OK, let’s do it this way. He’s going to really kind of defer to me and let me kind of call the shots instead of him just telling me what to put in the car.’”
Darlington, prior to its most recent repave in 2008, was notoriously tough on tires. The spring 1993 race was no different. But Earnhardt and Petree put their heads together during practice that weekend and found a way to make the right-front tire on the black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet hold up better than that of most of their competitors. And it showed in the race as Earnhardt led 212 of 367 laps en route to the victory.
“That was one of those races at Darlington where the right-front tire was really, really suspect and it actually would not make a fuel run,” Petree said. “The right front would blow out in about 35 laps or less. … We didn’t actually fix it but we got to where we could run longer on that right front than anybody, and we ended up winning it. And I just remember Dale in Victory Lane. We were just grinning at each other and said, ‘OK, that’s how it works.’ That was a real turning point for us. We went on to win a lot of races that year and the championship, but that was definitely the turning point.”
Earnhardt finished his Darlington career with 24 top-10s, including 19 top-fives, and six DNFs in 44 starts. Elliott Sadler, who competed in Earnhardt’s last four Darlington races, was impressed by the seven-time champion’s penchant for navigating the challenging layout.
“Darlington’s a driver’s race track. It’s a place that it can reach out and bite you it seems like all the time,” Sadler said. “Earnhardt was a very smart race car driver. We all know he was the ‘Man in Black,’ we all know he was ‘The Intimidator,’ but he was a very smart race car driver. He never really got himself in situations. He always finished races.
“You never saw him really take himself out rubbing up the wall too much and flat-siding that right side. He just understood how to race at Darlington and I think a lot of young drivers coming in could watch him and learn from that.”
Earnhardt certainly had no shortage of Darlington lessons to teach.
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Darlington Raceway, or the track Too Tough To Tame as it is known to many, is where the purest of NASCAR competition meets true southern hospitality. A NASCAR staple since 1950, Darlington Raceway has seen some of motorsports most talented drivers thunder to Gatorade Victory Lane. On Mother’s Day weekend, May 6-7, 2011, NASCAR’s biggest stars return to battle the track Too Tough To Tame in the Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500® and Nationwide Series Royal Purple 200.
Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.