BRISTOL, Tenn. – There was no fooling around for Dale Earnhardt on April 1, 1979 when the eventual sports icon crossed the finish line at Bristol Motor Speedway for his first Cup win.
“It was a major accomplishment simply because it was his 16th Cup start,” said local racing author and historian David McGee. “Rookies did not win in that era. You had guys like Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker that won all the races. For a rookie to come and win against all those guys in the field was remarkable.”
Especially for a rookie who had not been a huge success up to that point, having placed 13th the previous two seasons in the Late Model Sportsman Division points standings, which was similar to the Xfinity Series of today.
“He was a good driver. If you talked to racers who competed with him they said he was competitive, but he wasn’t dominant,” McGee said, “maybe not the hallmark of someone who is going to go on to such greatness.”
He arrived in Bristol making just his seventh start for car owner Rod Osterlund. Not much was expected from the rookie.
“Earnhardt didn’t have a spectacular career coming into Cup. He had tried a couple of times to get a Cup ride,” McGee said. “He had marginal success, had some decent cars, but nothing spectacular so this was his first real opportunity in a good car.
This Rod Osterlund team had a good team and a good car, but it was the only win he had all year. He got hurt later in the season so it was a big deal. Everybody has got to win one to win two and to win three and then win 85 and seven championships.”
That is exactly what Earnhardt would do.
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It was an uphill climb for Earnhardt, whose father, Ralph, was a NASCAR champion in the 1950s before turning his focus to dirt tracks. He died of a heart attack in 1973 at 45. Dale was just 21 at the time, and was determined to make a living behind the wheel of a Cup car.
“He was racing against guys like Jack Ingram and L.D. Ottinger and Butch Lindley and those guys, and of course there were a lot of great drivers around here,” McGee said. “Senior actually raced in this area in the 1970s, at Kingsport and Lonesome Pine and tracks like that.”
He was trying to make a name for himself. He was trying to figure out if he could fit in at that Cup level.”
He did, earning NASCAR rookie of the year honors in 1979, including that first win four decades and one week ago in Bristol. One year later he won the first of his record-tying seven Cup championships, a record Earnhardt shares with Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson.
“In the 57-year history of Bristol Motor Speedway there are certain events and certain races that really stand out,” McGee said. “When you have a sports icon, not just a racing icon, but a sports icon the caliber of Dale Earnhardt and he gets his first ever Cup series win here it is significant. It is doubly significant because it came during his rookie season which was almost unheard of.
“We are talking about 1979, 40 years ago, and at that time you had a handful of drivers that won all the races. Rookies just didn’t come into the Cup series and win races and that is exactly what he did.”
Earnhardt had shown flashes earlier in the season, actually leading 10 laps at the Daytona 500, and led a few more laps at North Wilkesboro. Baker won the pole for the Southeastern 500 in Bristol, but it was Earnhardt’s race to shine.
“He was among the leaders all day, actually led about 163 laps, led the most laps that day,” said McGee, who added that Earnhardt understood the importance of his crew, led at the time by crew chief “Suitcase” Jake Elder. “He got into a situation late in the race, and I am sure he had a lot of confidence from that, but he needed a little help from his pit crew and they got him out in front.”
According to McGee, Earnhardt was battling with Darrell Waltrip and Allison before getting the lead after a late caution caused when Cecil Gordon bumped into Johnson City area driver Mike Potter.
“[That] brought out the last caution of the day and they got off pit road first and got the lead and held the lead all the way to the end,” McGee said. “Darrell actually faded, Allison came in second, but he wasn’t able to do anything with the rookie.
“I guess everybody has to have a first win so you begin a career of 80-plus wins and seven Cup championships here on an April 1st in 1979.”
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That was the beginning of something big. Really big.
All Earnhardt did was become one of the most dominant figures in the sport, winning nine times in Bristol, including the following year, which turned into his first Cup championship.
“His team stayed together and came back in 1980,” McGee said. “They picked up some sponsorships and were able to win the championship and Dale’s second win was at Bristol, as he repeated his win in what was then the Southeastern 500, now what we know as the Food City 500.”
McGee said that Bristol was an Earnhardt track. It just fit who he was.
“I think the way you have to drive the track fit Dale Sr.’s personality. It is a track where you really have to get up on the wheel, you have to be very aggressive, but at the same time you also have to take care of your equipment or you are never going to make it to the end of 500 laps,” said McGee, who said Earnhardt had other favorite tracks, including Talladega and Daytona. “Dale Jr. has actually said that he felt like that Bristol as a track kind of personified how his father liked to race.
“Dale Sr. found some comfort here. He found a comfort zone in leading at Bristol in 1979 and I think that translated as he came on to win eight more times, the last one coming in 1999.”
Less than two years later, the 49-year-old Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt is gone, but certainly not forgotten. Bristol Motor Speedway will focus much of its attention this week in honoring that Cup victory all those years ago.
Love him or hate him, there was just something about Earnhardt that appealed to race fans. All these years later, and that hasn’t changed.
“I think a lot of it is that he came from a common background, very middle class upbringing, he lost his father when he was young,” McGee said. “He dropped out of high school, he was a millworker and he put everything he had into driving a race car and trying to make success on the track.
“That translates. I think here is somebody who lived out his dream and was able to succeed at a really high level and was able to acquire all the trappings that go with that, the houses and the cars and the airplane and all those things that go with that.
“I think they felt good about his success.”