Earnhardt "Loved" the Unique Format of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race
It’s been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 and the loss of “The Intimidator” is still being felt throughout motorsports. In 2011, as the NASCAR community reflects on his life and career, Charlotte Motor Speedway is looking back at some of Earnhardt's most memorable performances, some of which came during the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
“Earnhardt loved that race because of the fact he could go out there and be aggressive and not worry about the points,” said Richard Childress, team owner of Earnhardt’s famed No. 3 Chevrolet. “We both really looked forward to that race because it was short, paid a huge purse to win it and we didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble or be worried about the championship. He loved that kind of racing and would always get excited when it was time to go to Charlotte for that race.”
Earnhardt collected 76 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories and won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race three times – in 1987, 1990 and 1993.
May 17, 1987 - “The Pass in the Grass”
Twenty-four years later, the 1987 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is still recognized by many as the wildest race in NASCAR history.
During the first 75-lap segment, Bill Elliott, driving the No. 9 Melling Racing Ford, swapped the lead with Geoff Bodine in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Kyle Petty in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Elliott won the first segment and then led all 50 laps of the second.
Under the unique rules for the special event, the final 10 laps were to be run under the green flag with caution laps not counting. That’s when Earnhardt became aggressive and gave Elliott his biggest headache.
Bodine and Elliott made contact in Turn 2 on the first lap of the final segment, which sent Bodine spinning. Earnhardt took advantage of the situation, drove between the two cars and took the lead. The trio reloaded with fresh tires during the caution period that followed.
With seven laps remaining, Earnhardt and Elliott made contact coming off of Turn 4, sending Earnhardt into the infield grass. Miraculously, Earnhardt held his blue-and-yellow Chevrolet straight and stayed ahead of Elliott. For decades, the move has been referred to as “The Pass in the Grass.”
The two continued to race hard with Elliott being squeezed just shy of the outside wall several times during the final circuits. Earnhardt went on to win while Elliott fumed. He made heavy contact with Earnhardt’s Chevrolet on the cool-down lap to express his displeasure.
Earnhardt wasn’t pleased about being sent into the frontstretch grass.
“Bodine and Elliott wrecked in the first turn,” Earnhardt said in the May 21, 1987, issue of Grand National Scene. “I guess Bodine chopped down on him and turned him around, but all I know is that I didn’t touch anybody. I guess it was reflexes. I checked up and started to move where I thought they wouldn’t be. I decided to go to the bottom of the track and I was by myself. I don’t know why they threw the caution flag. No one was stopped.
“Then, as we came into the tri-oval two laps later, Elliott got under me and clipped me sideways. I almost got the car started the other way before I went into the grass and then I was able to get it right while I was in it. If I hadn’t, I might have gone right up into the flag stand right there with (flagman) Harold Kinder.
“I can guarantee you that, if I had turned someone sideways like that, I would be hanging from the flagpole right now.”
May 20, 1990 – Led Every Lap
Going into the race that had been shortened to 70 laps, Earnhardt lived up to expectation as he led the entire race in Richard Childress Racing’s black No. 3.
“There was no question about who beat who today,” Earnhardt said in the May 24, 1990, issue of Grand National Scene. “I don’t mean for that to sound like bragging but, today, the race was won without controversy.
“I was running hard, but I was watching my rearview mirror, too. I wanted to stay consistent in case anyone did catch me. Then I could have something for them.”
There was wide speculation that Earnhardt would break away at the start and never look back.
During a brief intermission, teams up and down pit road made chassis adjustments, but couldn’t find the combination to go head-to-head with the sport’s biggest star.
Earnhardt went into the race a bit skeptical that he could make such a strong run. He was hopeful, but not completely confident.
“We didn’t know we could lead flag to flag,” Earnhardt said. “When you work hard, you can dominate and sometimes you make your luck.”
May 22, 1993 – The Role of Spoiler
Ernie Irvan, driving the No. 4 Morgan-McClure Chevrolet, easily won the first 30-lap segment of the 1983 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race while Rick Mast, after an inverted restart, topped the second. The third and final segment, at just 10 laps, looked like it belonged to Mark Martin in a strong Roush Racing Ford. But the complexion of the race changed when Terry Labonte crashed with two laps remaining.
Two restarts were needed when Earnhardt was charged with jumping the first. In the end, the race came down to a gusty pass. Earnhardt stayed alongside Martin down the backstretch and nosed ahead in Turns 3 and 4. At the start-finish line, he took the victory by sixteen-hundredths of a second.
“I drove deeper in the third turn than I thought I could, but the car stuck,” Earnhardt said. “I looked up in four and saw he was behind me and I knew all I had to do was keep going and I had it won.”
Martin recently reflected on battling Earnhardt in those intense NASCAR Sprint All-Star Races.
“Dale Earnhardt was tough everywhere he raced, but when everything was on the line, he was even tougher,” Martin said. “He loved those shorter, big money races. What can you say, he was Earnhardt.”
Tickets for all May races at Charlotte Motor Speedway can be purchased online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com or by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS (3267). Frontstretch tickets with the best views of the world’s largest HD video board, debuting at the speedway in May, start at just $49 for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 21. Fans can also purchase two frontstretch tickets for just $99 to the Coca-Cola 600 on May 29.