This is part one of a two-part story on seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt that appeared in the January 2021 edition of SPEED SPORT Magazine. Check back tomorrow for part two of this story.

Dale Earnhardt was simply the most loved and most hated race car driver who ever lived.

From a poor kid who dropped out of school while growing up in the mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., to a thriving businessman and spokesperson for various Fortune 500 companies,

Earnhardt’s life came full circle and made him a hero to people from all walks of life.

What made him the folk hero he became was his amazing ability to wheel a race car. He won 76 NASCAR Cup Series races en route to seven series championships. He also earned four IROC titles, winning 11 times in that series, and added 21 NASCAR Xfinity Series triumphs.

Accumulating more than $41 million in NASCAR earnings, Earnhardt built an empire that included various business ventures, most notably his race team — Dale Earnhardt, Inc.,

Ralph Dale Earnhardt made his first NASCAR Cup Series start at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1975, finishing 22nd.

His first victory came at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 1979. The 27-year-old son of short-track racer Ralph Earnhardt earned rookie-of-the-year honors in the series that season, driving for Rod Osterlund. In 1980, Earnhardt narrowly defeated Cale Yarborough to win his first Cup Series championship.

“We were lucky and I really believe we had some help from a pretty high source,” Earnhardt said. “You can prepare as carefully as possible and run as hard as you can, but in the end having faith and believing counts for an awful lot.”

Earnhardt began his second stint driving for Richard Childress Racing in 1984 and posted his first triumph with the team in an exciting photo finish at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in July.

“My crew chief, Kirk Shelmerdine, was yelling over the radio as I came through turn four, ‘Drive that thing! Drive it!’” Earnhardt said. “I started to answer him with something cute, but about that time I saw Buddy (Baker) and Terry (Labonte) side by side in my mirror and I pretty well knew it was mine. So I just waved at the crew and the fans down the homestretch toward the checkered flag.”

Dale Earnhardt earned his second NASCAR Cup Series championship in 1986. (ISC Archives via Getty Images photo)
Dale Earnhardt earned his second NASCAR Cup Series championship in 1986. (ISC Archives via Getty Images photo)

Earnhardt was the man to beat in 1986. Despite dominating several early season races he did not win until mid-April at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway where he led 335 of 367 laps. “We’ve been the car to beat every race this year,” Earnhardt said. “So there wasn’t any use to get all tore up over the bad luck. Sure, it was frustrating to be running up front and not winning. But part of racing is that to be a good winner, you’ve got to be a good loser.”

Earnhardt ended 1986 with his second NASCAR Cup  Series championship.

“I’m not going to compare the two titles, but this one means an awful lot because of the dedication of the boys on my crew and Richard Childress,” Earnhardt said. “Richard was our key to winning the championship. His effort as team owner put us where we are. All the glory is his.”

The following season Earnhardt won 11 races and his third title.

Earnhardt won four of the first six races in 1987. After the fourth victory, which came at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, Earnhardt was setting his goals high. “If I keep my head screwed on, we’re going to have a great year. It would be great to win 12 to 15 — and we’re shooting for that.”

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