Fans and critics alike are raving this week following Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return to victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway. An emotional Earnhardt claimed that he felt the win – his sixth at Talladega – added to his father’s legacy.
On this week 20 years ago, Dale Earnhardt himself was also adding to his legacy, scoring his first (and only) victory on a road course.
1995 was a big year for the Intimidator. Coming off of his record-tying seventh championship, Earnhardt started the year off hot, bringing home five straight top-four finishes, including a heartbreaking runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 (remember, he hadn’t won it yet at this point). Earnhardt claimed his first win of the year at North Wilkesboro and found himself holding a large points lead.
Crashes at both Martinsville and Talladega left Earnhardt reeling as he headed to Sonoma for the first race of May. He still held the points lead, but many expected him to relinquish it. No one could blame them; Dale just wasn’t good at road courses.
On oval tracks, Earnhardt was the master. He struck fear into the eyes of any who saw his Goodwrench No. 3 Chevrolet in their mirror, though most only saw it when they were going a lap down. However, put Dale on a road course, and suddenly “The Intimidator” became “The Survivor”, trying to keep his car clean and make his way to the next oval.
In 1995, something different happened. Earnhardt arrived at Sonoma Raceway (then Sears Point) with speed. The Hall of Famer qualified fourth, and kept himself up front and in contention throughout the 74-lap event.
Earnhardt wasn’t the driver to beat that day – that role went to Mark Martin, who led 66 laps – but he was in position when it counted. As the laps ticked down, Martin saw the familiar black No. 3 in his mirror. When he got in some fluid and overshot turn 6 with two to go, Earnhardt swooped by him to take the lead.
Martin would fight back to Earnhardt’s bumper, but Dale put together two flawless laps to win the 1995 Save Mart Supermarkets 300 by .32 seconds.
I’ve never seen the full-length race, but a video of the final few laps can be found on YouTube. Sonoma looked little like it does today. If some of those walls and barriers still existed now, drivers would probably refuse to race, but that didn’t stop the gritty stars of yesteryear from putting on a grand show for the fans.
The win was huge for Earnhardt. He flashed that big smile the fans loved when he climbed out of his car in victory lane, talking about how bad he wanted to add a road-course victory to his résumé in the post-race interview.
Unfortunately for Dale, an eighth title wasn’t meant to be. Earnhardt put together three more wins in the second-half of the 1995 season, including another career-defining triumph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but fell short of the title thanks to a seven-win campaign from a hotshot kid named Jeff Gordon.
Still, the road-course win, coupled with a 1998 Daytona 500 victory, cemented Earnhardt as a driver that could win at any track. Once an afterthought at road courses, Earnhardt proved that he could always find a way to victory lane, even at his worst tracks.
Dale’s been gone for over 14 years now, but his name still echoes throughout the garage area weekly on the NASCAR tour.
While his son will never live up to his legacy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has certainly shared similar stories with the Intimidator.
Earnhardt Jr. is now tied for second on the Talladega wins list, trailing only his father. He may never win on a road course, but he did finally conquer his own Sonoma demons with a third-place finish in 2014.
Following Dale Jr.’s Talladega triumph, the Earnhardts now hold 100 Sprint Cup Series wins, the most of any father-son duo not named Petty. With 24 of those 100 wins over a 17-year career, Dale Jr. has managed to carve his own share of the Earnhardt legacy while adding to his father’s.
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