Masters of the game: Dale Earnhardt

In this series by Philip Pegler, he will highlight drivers who had an almost uncanny ability that allowed them to triumph over all those who challenged them. This is Part One.

Masters of the game: Dale Earnhardt

Even though an incredible 15 years has passed, at times it still seems as though it was only yesterday that I was driving along I-20 following the 1999 DieHard 500. Like many that day, I had just witnessed Dale Earnhardt earn his eighth Sprint Cup (then Winston Cup) victory at Talladega and I was basking in the sense of post-race euphoria.

Over the years we have heard many stories of Earnhardt's supreme performances at Daytona and Talladega. There is no denying the fact that, even when Earnhardt and his iconic RCR team appeared to have lost their long-envied competitive advantage in the late 1990s, he always remained a key player in each season's four restrictor-plate races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet takes a selfie in front of a statue of his father
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet takes a selfie in front of a statue of his father

Photo by: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

So how did he do it? At the two tracks where aerodynamic efficiency and horsepower often combine to determine a team's competitive edge, with driver input arguably being less of a factor, Earnhardt constantly defied the odds by repeatedly taking a frequently mediocre car straight to the front of the field. Folklore says that Earnhardt could "see the air", but perhaps it's more accurate to say that he had a unique understanding of the airflow surrounding not only his own car, but the cars of everyone else around him. The behavior of the air as it moves under, over and around a car has widely varying characteristics and depending on where a given car is positioned, in relation to the other cars, determines whether a driver can either take advantage of that airflow in one circumstance or intentionally avoid it in another.

We often hear drivers talk about finding the rhythm in a racetrack I, especially at places like North Carolina Motor Speedway "The Rock" {no longer on the Sprint Cup Series Calendar} or at Bristol Motor Speedway. However, as the tracks become larger, that sense of rhythm becomes somewhat diluted; laps at tracks like California and Michigan are in the 35-40 second range compared to 15 seconds at Bristol. However, at the plate tracks, no two laps are alike, and even when a driver is out front, leading the race, the circumstances are constantly evolving are are rarely repeated. There is no physical rhythm, but perhaps there is a psychological one.

Because of the nature of restrictor-plate racing, it is generally impossible for the leading driver to pull away from the competition. Instead, he or she must utilize their understanding the airflow from their own car together with that of the competing cars to maintain their position. Dale Earnhardt was a master of this particular skill and was able to position his car wherever necessary in order to advance, maintain or defend his position. While most drivers had a genuine understanding of the obvious spoiler slipstream {draft} of the car in front, Earnhardt was busy discovering and working the air off the side of cars {side draft}, and it was particularly noticeable in the corners.

If you go back and look at the Talladega Winston Cup races from 1999, this can be clearly seen. Earnhardt, often seen leading the outside line down into turn one, runs a very low line through the corner, almost appearing to squash against the car on the inside line. In a way, that was exactly what he was doing, but rather than squashing the actual car, he was leaning down on the air coming off the side of the car. Like compressing a spring, he would time the 'release' just right and vault ahead as he emerged from the corner.

Tribute to Dale Earnhardt
Tribute to Dale Earnhardt

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

While an academic understanding of this practice is relatively straightforward, executing it is something that requires incredible skill and anticipation. Earnhardt had an extraordinary peripheral awareness, undeniable skills and perhaps unparalleled levels of anticipation in these circumstances and, regardless of which NASCAR rules package was being utilized, Earnhardt remained unfazed and always in contention.

If one looks at his Talladega races from 1996 to 2000, one cannot dispute the level at which he performed. Although he did not win there in 1996, '97 or '98, in each of the six races he was a contender. Following a 3rd in the spring race, July 1996 saw his infamous trioval accident with Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin (Earnhardt was leading at the time) where he finished 28th. In 1997 he recorded 2nd place to Mark Martin in the spring and another wrecked race car in the fall. 1998 showed, yet again, two excellent performances, but a wreck with Bill Elliott courtesy of Ward Burton in the spring race and a multi-car wreck in the fall took away potential race victories, the latter a chance at the 'Winston No Bull 5' Million Dollar Sweepstakes.

However, it is Earnhardt's final four Talladega performances of 1st, 1st, 3rd and 1st that perhaps demonstrate his undeniable skills. Each race with a different set of circumstances and three of the four with different rules packages. Spring 1999 saw him lead a race-high 70 laps and hold off Dale Jarrett for the victory. However, it was his performance in the Winston 500 later that year that left many people wondering just how he did what he did and why no one else could.

After his car failed Friday's technical inspection, Earnhardt's team were made to change the bodywork on the back of the car; a task which involved cutting off the entire rear fascia and modifying the bodywork. Earnhardt took Sunday's green flag in 27th place but in less than 10 laps was running 4th. The 1999 Winston 500 was a bit of a strange race because it's generally understood that drivers need to avoid finding themselves alone in the middle lane yet it was precisely through that avenue that Earnhardt had advanced. In a race that changed lead several times in the closing stages, Earnhardt again held Dale Jarrett at bay to take his ninth Talladega victory.

If 1999 was a year to remember, it will be the 2000 Winston 500 that will stand as perhaps one of the greatest superspeedway performances of all time. With five laps remaining, having pitted at the previous caution and finding himself back in the field, Earnhardt was seemingly stuck in 23rd place. But just as many we're resigning themselves to the fact that another victory was all but out of reach, Earnhardt began advancing and in the final five laps moved from 17th to 1st. He passed his teammate, Mike Skinner, coming to the white flag and held on for his 76th and final career win; his 10th at Talladega.

We are now 15 years removed from these legendary drives, but coupled with his performances at Daytona, not only in the Cup Series, but also in the Busch Grand National Series and TrueValue IROC Series, there can be no denying that today's drivers have all learned from Earnhardt's series of restrictor plate masterclasses.

He once described racing at Talladega like playing a game of chess, as much a mental game as a physical one. There was no greater chess player at the superspeedways than Dale Earnhardt. He was truly, Master of the Game.

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