The son of the great short track racer Ralph Earnhardt, who died of a heart attack in 1973 at 45, Dale wasn't initially successful following in his footsteps. Like today's start-and-parkers, the Intimidator's early goal was simply to survive in taking underfunded rides and one-race gimmicks like this Charlotte deal helped along by legendary promoter Humpy Wheeler. Earnhardt's first two Cup starts were at the 1.5-mile oval; he ran 23rd and 31st, respectively in starts that earned him a total of just $4,150.
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Dale Earnhardt takes his first victory at Bristol International Speedway on April 1, 1979.
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Earnhardt's big break would come at a Sportsman (now Busch Series) race at Charlotte in October 1978. Placed in top-level equipment, he responded and nearly won the race in a second car for owner Rod Osterlund. Impressed, the minor league owner auditioned Earnhardt for a major league Cup opportunity and he responded with a fourth-place finish at Atlanta, earning a job full-time for '79.
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After a strong first season the Osterlund team, many expected it to keep improving in 1980. But no one expected, after just 36 starts at the Cup level, Earnhardt could seriously contend for a title, let alone fend off a man who'd won three of the last four series championships: Cale Yarborough.It was one of the most shocking seasons in Sprint Cup history, this full-time sophomore leading the standings for 30 of 31 races while winning five times, including back-to-back victories at Martinsville and Charlotte that fall to seal the deal on the Winston Cup trophy. Once the smoke cleared in the Ontario season finale, the final margin stood at 19 over Yarborough and Earnhardt had established himself as a bona fide Cup star on the circuit for years to come.
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Earnhardt poses before the Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
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Bobby Allison and Earnhardt share a moment before the Firecracker 400.
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Even legends need their beauty sleep. Here, Earnhardt catches a few Zs before the Atlanta 500 in Hampton, Ga.
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Earnhartd's marriage to Teresa on Nov. 14, 1982, became the third and final one for the Intimidator. A savvy businesswoman, Teresa helped run Dale Earnhardt, Inc. when her husband expanded his own race team in the late 1990s and continues to have a share in the program -- now co-owned by Chip Ganassi -- to this day.
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A female fan dressed as Wonder Woman looks for a smooch from Dale Earnhardt at the Sovran Bank 500.
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Earnhardt was known for his success at the restrictor plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega, but there's no track he loved more than the egg-shaped oval up in Darlington. Pictured here enjoying the time trials with daughter Taylor in 1989, he would go on to win one of NASCAR's crown jewels, the Southern 500, at the egg-shaped oval later that weekend. In all, he collected nine victories in 44 starts on the sport's oldest superspeedway, a mark that stands second all time to David Pearson.
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NASCAR's mid to late-90s growth period was filled with experimentation, causing the circuit to tinker with exhibition races over in Japan. Earnhardt never won -- he ran second to Rusty Wallace in 1996 -- but was a huge hit with the fan base, whose interest in the NASCAR icon showed how his love/hate personality had transcended boundaries most wouldn't have dared the sport to even dream for a driver 20, even 10 years earlier.
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Earnhardt's signature black, No. 3 Chevy became one of NASCAR's most well-known cars.
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Once Earnhardt and Childress hit their stride, they became an unstoppable force on the Cup circuit, similar to the Jimmie Johnson /Rick Hendrick duo we see today. Here, Earnhardt collects the Cup series title with two races left to go in the season, clinching early to finish off a nine-year run from 1986-94 that included 48 victories, well over 16,000 laps led and six of his seven career championships, tying him with the King, Richard Petty for most all time.
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Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt share a laugh before the Hooters 500.
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Earnhardt's fearless approach to driving and his penchant for hard racing, earned him the nicknames The Intimidator and the Man in Black.
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As the sport moved into the mid-1990s, Earnhardt found himself with a new, young rival. Initially nicknaming Jeff Gordon Wonderboy, Earnhardt and his legion of fans had fun creating a heated on-track rivalry with the youngster.In somewhat of a changing of the guard, the then 24-year-old Gordon ended Earnhardt's title run in '95 and went on to win three of four while the Intimidator was forced to stand down for once: he pulled an 0-for in the championship column the rest of his career.
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Nineteen years of frustration had defined Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, winning everything under the sun there except the trophy that counted the most: NASCAR's Super Bowl, the Great American Race that turned into a Great American Heartbreak. Bad luck played out in front of a national audience, the man lost the victory on everything from a flat tire to a last-lap pass while wondering if the monkey would ever remove itself from his back. When it finally did, on the 20th try every member of every team slapped his hand coming down pit lane, a unified reminder of how his struggle attached itself to everyone both inside and outside the sport at large.
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Earnhardt sweeps up after one of his 10 wins at Talladega.
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Earnhardt and son Dale prep for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The duo are one of only a handful of father-son racers to compete in the same event.
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Dale Earnhardt and crew chief Kevin Hamlin talk in the garage at Daytona Speedway prior to the Pepsi 400.
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As Earnhardt aged, the Intimidator began to mellow a bit and allow some public displays of emotion -- especially when it came to his son, Dale. The 1998 and '99 Busch Series champion, Junior's surprising rise to fame culminated in a 2000 rookie season at the Cup level in which he won three times -- including the sport's All-Star Race -- prompting Earnhardt the elder to openly praise his son's accomplishments.
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During a practice session for the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Earnhardt and Tony Stewart speak in the garage. It would be less than a year later that both Earnhardt and Stewart were in accidents during the Daytona 500.
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Anxiously awaiting the start of the Goody's Body Pain 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Earnhardt peers out of his window.
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Earnhardt's death in 2001 incited a nationwide reaction, one that hasn't faded over time. On Sunday, NASCAR plans for lap 3 to be silent both on TV and in the grandstands in honor of the fallen legend.
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