2000 Winston 500: Earnhardt’s Talladega Surprise
By: Dave Rodman on April 13, 2011 | 8:01 A.M. EST
“I didn’t have any thought that I had any chance of winning this race, starting where I did on that restart." (Photo: ISC Archives)
In the first game of the 1988 World Series, an injured Kirk Gibson hit the home run that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers the win. On CBS, legendary play-by-play announcer Jack Buck delivered a seven-word description that would become one of his signature calls.
“I don’t believe what I just saw!”
A dozen years later, there were thousands of people in Talladega, Ala., who must have felt like Buck.
Without a doubt, NASCAR’s explosive growth in the final quarter of the 20th century would not have occurred without the financial and promotional support of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. The arrival of the 21st century would bring major changes for Reynolds, as well as the entire tobacco industry. The master settlement agreement with the federal government severely restricted tobacco companies’ ability to advertise their products. The 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway would be the final time a NASCAR event would carry title sponsorship from Reynolds’ Winston brand.
The members of Earnhardt Nation gathered for their semi-annual Alabama reunion on October 15, 2000, with one thing in mind. They wanted to see their hero win his 20th race at Talladega. Earnhardt qualified his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet 20th and by late in the race, his chances of taking that win appeared highly unlikely.
At the final restart, Earnhardt was mired in 18th. As is often the case at Talladega, there were other cars to the left, cars to the right, cars to the front, and cars to the rear. But this was “The Intimidator”...the driver who some people claimed could see the air move. As the laps wound down, Earnhardt made an amazing charge to the front with Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek in tow.
Coming to the white flag, Mike Skinner held the lead, with Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., running second. The elder Earnhardt was on the high side of the track; being pushed by Wallace while Nemechek remained behind them. Skinner faded on the final lap and Wallace gave Earnhardt the shove that got him past his RCR teammate and into the lead. Earnhardt managed to beat Wallace to the finish by one-10th of a second, picking up a million-dollar bonus.
There were cheers from the estimated 170,000 fans in attendance as the victory celebration got underway.
“He never gave up,” a surprised Richard Childress said of his driver, Earnhardt. “The race fans got the race they deserved today.”
Earnhardt was quick to credit Wallace with making his victory possible.
“It was wild,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “I didn’t have any thought that I had any chance of winning this race, starting where I did on that restart. Boy, as we kept working away and got on the outside of Kenny — Kenny really worked hard with us and he did a good job. I don’t think we could have gotten back up there without Kenny.”
The win would prove to be the 76th and final Cup victory of Earnhardt’s stellar Hall-of-Fame career. Tragically, he would lose his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 just four months later.
Wallace’s runner-up finish would turn out to be his best in a Cup career that included 344 starts over portions of 18 seasons.
This week’s edition of MRN Flashback Friday remembers the 2000 Winston 500 from Talladega. Barney Hall, Allen Bestwick, Joe Moore, Dave Moody, and Eli Gold call the action at Noon (ET) Friday on MotorRacingNetwork.com