Eight is a number closely associated with three generations of racing Earnhardts.
It’s the number that family patriarch Ralph Earnhardt was best known for. It was the number used by Dale Earnhardt Sr. when he raced in the Late Model Sportsman and later in the Busch Series. Dale Earnhardt Jr. used the number the first part of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
While Ralph Earnhardt was one of the pioneers of stock car racing and Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, let’s look at eight times when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the best of the racing Earnhardts.
• 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was voted National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver by the fans 15 times, only one behind the all-time record held by Bill Elliott. Dale Earnhardt Sr. never won the award during his driving career, with a rough-and-tumble style that some fans cheered and others booed. He famously said, “That’s OK as long as they are making noise.”
Dale Sr. won the Most Popular Driver award posthumously after his fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Ralph Earnhardt didn’t race full-time in the Cup Series, making 51 career starts from 1956-64.
• 2. Two Daytona 500 victories for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004 and 2014. While Dale Sr. holds the all-time record for 34 wins at Daytona, he only won the “Great American Race” one time in 1998. He came painstakingly close in 1990 with a big lead, only to cut a tire on the final lap, handing the win to Derrike Cope.
Ralph Earnhardt made three Daytona 500 starts with his best finish 19th in the 1964 race. Coincidentally, it was the first of Richard Petty’s record seven wins in the race and Earnhardt drove earlier in his career for Petty Enterprises. Overall, Dale Sr. went 1-for-23 in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing,” but finished runner-up five times. He also holds the record with 12 top-10 finishes.
Junior holds the all-time event record with a 5.6 average starting position. Beyond competing in the race, he has served as a grand marshal, official pace car driver and honorary starter.
• 3. The No. 3 was the car number which Dale Jr. drove to back-to-back NASCAR Busch Series championships in 1998-99. Ralph was Sportsman national champion in 1956 and runner-up in 1955 and ’58. Dale Sr. best finish in the Late Model Sportsman ranks was sixth in 1975. Newport driver L.D. Ottinger won his second straight national championship that season.
• 4. Four straight Talladega wins from 2001-03. Yes, Dale Sr. has four more Talladega wins overall (10-6), but Junior had a stretch at the Alabama track unmatched by any other driver. Dale Sr. came close with wins in three of his last four Talladega races in 1999 and 2000.
Ralph Earnhardt never raced in the Cup Series at Talladega, but was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame there in 1997.
• 5. Dale Jr. posted 430 lead-lap finishes in 631 races compared to 352 in 676 races for Dale Sr. Ralph Earnhardt had only three lead-lap finishes in his 51 Cup Series starts. However, the category is somewhat misleading as the finishes of modern races are much closer than previous eras. When you compare top-10 finishes, then Dale Sr. comes out on top with 428-260 over Dale Jr.
• 6. Sixth-place is where Dale Jr. finished in the 1998 NASCAR Thunder Special exhibition in Japan. It was his first time father and son raced in Cup Series competition and Dale Jr. finished two spots ahead of Dale Sr. In their only full-season racing head-to-head in 2000, father and son each won two races. That season, brother Kerry joined the fray at Michigan. Although Dale Jr. started on the pole, Dale Sr. finished ahead of his sons in sixth-place.
There is only one documented time of Dale Sr. and Ralph in the same race at Metrolina Speedway in Charlotte in 1972. Much like the 24 Hours of Daytona, it was a race which two different classes competed at the same time.
• 7. Ralph Earnhardt was one of the first NASCAR drivers to make a living in the sport, the winner of an estimated 350 short-track races. Dale Sr. made a fortune with a documented $42 million in the Cup Series. The career earnings for Dale Jr. through 2015, the last time NASCAR made the figures public exceeded $95 million. However, he made much more through endorsements with an estimated worth over $300 million.
• 8. Dale Jr. has a highly successful post-driving career, which includes being an analyst for NBC Sports and his popular podcast. Certainly if not for his fatal crash, Dale Sr. was set up well as a car owner and he was a natural in front of the camera. Ralph Earnhardt was from a different era, more focused on working on the race cars instead of talking about them.
RETURN TO THUNDER VALLEY
A person with knowledge of the situation expects an announcement soon the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway will soon be added to the 2021 NHRA national schedule.
Bristol hosted the event from 2001-19 before it was postponed and eventually canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. NHRA released a 22-race schedule in October, but Bristol was not a part of it. However, dragway officials have insisted all along that negotiations with the sanctioning body were still ongoing.
There’s no word if the race would be held at the traditional Father’s Day weekend spot. There is an opening on the NHRA schedule for that week.
Larry McClure, the former co-owner of Morgan-McClure Motorsports, which won three Daytona 500s with Sterling Marlin and Ernie Irvan has several classic American cars at Mecum Auctions in Kissimmee, Florida.
While the collection is heavy with Chevys and Fords cars and trucks, there is a Pontiac, Mercury and a Plymouth also being auctioned off.