Dale Earnhardt Sr., who also went by fitting nicknames such as "The Intimidator," was arguably the most ambiguous superstar to ever drive in NASCAR. Fans fell on one side or the other with the man from Kannapolis, North Carolina, either loving or hating him for his on-track talent and grit. However, after the racing world lost him following a fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, the collective opinion of Earnhardt switched wholly to place him in talks of "greatest ever."
In light of the seven-time Cup Series champion, on what would've been his 68th birthday, we're reflecting on Senior's storied career that included countless accolades and dramatic sagas.
A second-generation driver, Earnhardt grew up around the track as his father, Ralph, was a renowned dirt track racer in their home state of North Carolina. It was there that he reportedly took up his interest in the sport, though it was more likely inherently instilled in him from the beginning.
The then-24-year-old would make his NASCAR Cup debut in 1975 behind the wheel of Ed Niegre's No. 8 Dodge Charger before going on to drive for several famous team owners such as Bud Moore and Richard Childress. Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year for his performance in 1979, his first full season at the Cup level, and followed that up by claiming a title in 1980—he remains the only NASCAR driver to ever achieve those feats back-to-back.
Senior would find his longtime home at Richard Childress Racing where he drove from 1984 until the 2001 Daytona season-opener, following a short stint with the team in '81. It was there that Earnhardt won the majority of his titles, the final six all coming in Chevrolet equipment ('86, '87, '90, '91, 93, and '94).
During this span, Earnhardt racked up wins at essentially every major race on the Cup schedule, besting the harsh confines of Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Indianapolis, Talladega, and more. He led the Cup Series in wins twice ('87 and '90), also accumulating the most poles in the latter of those two seasons.
Earnhardt posthumously won the 2001 Most Popular Driver Award and was elected into the Motorsports Hall of Fame the following year, eventually being inducted into NASCAR's official HOF in 2010.
“He (Earnhardt) really gave me great advice,” Gordon once said in an interview. “If it came down to business or the sport in general, he was an open book. I don’t know if it was my curiosity and asking the right questions or him just being very gracious towards me in that sense.
Earnhardt's death also prompted a rapid investigation into the safety devices used by drivers in various series, and such research has resulted in life-saving developments for the motor racing world's favorite athletes. The HANS device is a prime example of this with more findings being made in real-time.