Iremembering A Legend: Part 1/Ibrthe Early Years

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Dale Earnhardt knew only one thing when he was growing up - racing.

Born in Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt began racing on the dirt tracks around the Carolinas at a young age. His father, Ralph Earnhardt, was a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman champion. From the day he first started racing, Dale knew he would have some large shoes to fill to be as successful as his father.

The Earnhardt father-son relationship provided a huge assist to Dale’s racing aspirations. When Ralph wasn’t at the track, he was at home in the garage working on the cars with his son. After Ralph died in 1973, Dale took over for his father running a few races that year, and in 1974 Dale Earnhardt first tried his hand at asphalt racing.

With the help of family friend Gray Loudon, the second generation Earnhardt legacy began. Loudon teamed with Dale to compete in asphalt racing and it turned out to be the beginning of a long and successful career.

Earnhardt made his first career Winston Cup start at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1975. He drove for veteran driver Ed Negre, starting 33rd and finishing 22nd. From 1975-1978 Earnhardt started nine Winston Cup races with his best finish coming in 1978, when he finished fourth for car owner Rod Osterlund.

Earnhardt often credited Osterlund with giving him his ‘big break’ in NASCAR. In 1979, Osterlund signed Earnhardt for a full season of racing. The 28-year-old Earnhardt made the most of the opportunity, recording his first career Winston Cup victory that year at Bristol. In addition to that victory, Earnhardt finished on the podium four times. He won four poles and ended up seventh in the championship point standings, earning him 1979 Rookie of the Year honors.

One year later, Earnhardt made history by becoming the only driver to follow up a rookie title with a Winston Cup championship. The title run was highlighted by five victories, including his first superspeedway win at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. But winning the title wasn’t easy as Earnhardt had to surpass NASCAR legend Cal Yarborough, who led the series that season with six wins.

In 1981, Earnhardt split his time between three different owners, Rod Osterlund, Jim Stacy, and Richard Childress. The defending Winston Cup champion competed in 16 races for Osterlund, finishing second twice but failing to win a race. His tries with Stacy and Childress were even less successful as he failed to even score a top three finish. However, despite the winless season, Earnhardt ended the campaign seventh in the championship.

A move to Bud Moore racing in 1982 didn’t improve Earnhardt’s season. He ended his winless draught with a victory at Darlington in April, but a crash at Pocono in July slowed him considerably. The incident saw Earnhardt’s Ford become airborne as he raced through the first turn and rip a hole in the concrete wall after a violent impact. Earnhardt suffered a broken kneecap in the wreck but continued racing. He finished the season 12th in the championship.

Despite two victories (Nashville and Talladega), the ’83 season once again didn’t live up to Earnhardt’s standards. As a result, he switched teams again before the 1984 campaign, this time back to Richard Childress racing. He recorded two victories that season and finished fourth in the championship point battle. As history would prove, however, the Childress-Earnhardt combination was just beginning its drive to becoming a dynasty.

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