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Back Roads: Earnhardt Sr. Hits Jack, Wins The Pot

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 28 2010

Dale Earnhardt's winning ways began as a rookie in 1979 in the Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

No matter what method has been used to determine the champion of NASCAR’s premier division,  not many drivers have won the title the first time an opportunity presented itself. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was one of those who stamped himself as extraordinary and one to watch

by winning his first Winston Cup, as the trophy was then called, in a close contest with veteran Cale Yarborough in 1980.

Earnhardt’s triumph that year was remarkable on several fronts. It was the North Carolina driver’s first quest for the title in only his second full season in the big leagues. It was just the third season of competition in NASCAR for Osterlund Racing.

Team owner Rod Osterlund liked to characterize the struggle between his newly arrived crew versus the established stars of the Winston Cup as “college kids” going up against the “Pittsburgh Steelers.” If so, sophomore driver Earnhardt and his crew took the teams of Yarborough, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip to school during the 1980 season.

Compared to the powerhouse entries of Junior Johnson, Petty Enterprises and DiGard Racing, newcomer Osterlund’s team was more akin to a high school squad. California businessman Osterlund’s team, launched with Dave Marcis as the driver in 1978, had scored only one win prior to the 1980 season. That was Earnhardt’s victory at Bristol during his rookie season of 1979.

Evidently that victory and winning the rookie of the year title stoked Earnhardt’s confidence. Even before a second victory in the spring of 1980 in Atlanta and the team’s first on a superspeedway Earnhardt, just shy of his 29th birthday, predicted, “We can win the championship.”

Earnhardt backed those words up again in the spring by winning a second consecutive race aboard the virtually unsponsored yellow and blue No. 2 Osterlund Chevy at Bristol. Then came a seemingly disastrous turn of events. After the 600-mile race in Charlotte in late May,

Cale Yarborough promised to "lecture" a young Dale Earnhardt. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

crew chief Jake “Suitcase” Elder, who had the most experience on the team by far, packed his bags and was replaced by 20-year-old Doug Richert, who was barely past the rank of rookie mechanic.

This turn of events left team manager Roland Wlodyka, relatively new to the Winston Cup, in charge at Osterlund. With the veteran teams of Petty and Yarborough closing in on the points lead, it seemed only a matter of time before Earnhardt’s title hopes would evaporate. But just as a driver can carry an ill-handling chassis, Earnhardt not only masked the team’s mechanical weaknesses, he stepped up and became the de facto team leader.

During the summer, Earnhardt’s cocky prediction again looked more credible when Petty had a bad crash at Pocono, where the year before Earnhardt himself had suffered severe injuries, including a bruised heart. A bitterly unhappy Waltrip, meanwhile, was locked into a contract dispute with DiGard owner Bill Gardner, leaving only three-time champion Yarborough and Johnson’s team to contest the title.  In August, Yarborough won two straight to pull within 10 points of leader Earnhardt. The sophomore driver responded by winning his fourth and fifth races of the year at Martinsville and Charlotte, extending his points lead to 115. Yarborough then countered with wins at Rockingham and Atlanta.

Gunning to become the first second-year driver to win the title, Earnhardt brought a new dimension to the title showdown despite Yarborough’s late-season charge. At Rockingham, even though he was a lap down, Earnhardt made aggressive moves on Yarborough, who angrily promised to give the upstart “a lecture.”

In Atlanta, Earnhardt rode his Chevy side-by-side with Yarborough’s Busch-sponsored Chevy

Dale Earnhardt was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on the first ballot. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

during the final three laps, despite having lost a lap midway in the race after getting caught in the pits by a caution. “That’s the worst piece of driving I’ve seen anybody do,” said a fuming Yarborough. But Earnhardt once again had given his team a psychological boost. “Without that caution and lost lap, it would have been one helluva finish,” he said.

With a lead that had dwindled to 29 points headed into the season finale at the Ontario Motor Speedway, the younger driver held on despite a wrong rear gear choice, another lap lost to bad pit strategy and a serious error on the final, woozy pit stop. After making up his lost lap, Earnhardt ran over his jack in the pits, then drove three laps with only two lug nuts on the right rear wheel before getting called back into the pits by NASCAR officials. If not for the Osterlund car being black-flagged for running over the jack and the standard penalty of returning to his pit stall – and a chance to replace three missing lug nuts – Earnhardt might have literally driven a wheel off in the final 17 laps.

The Osterlund Chevy finished fifth and Earnhardt clinched the title by 19 points. Most thought him and his team lucky. For their part, Osterlund and Wlodyka never participated in another title showdown in NASCAR’s Cup series in their respective roles as a team owner or team manager. In 2005, Richert was the crew chief for Greg Biffle at Roush Racing when they finished second to Tony Stewart by 35 points and led the Sprint Cup with six victories. Earnhardt’s struggle to carry a third-year team to the title was the first of six more championships.

(Editor’s note:  This story was adapted from a chapter in Jonathan Ingram’s book titled, “Dale Earnhardt, The Life Story of a NASCAR Legend.” A copy autographed by the author and with a commemorative bookmark can be purchased for $25. Mail checks to Jonathan Ingram, P.O. Box 250045 Atlanta, GA 30325. Please include a return mail address. Excerpts from the book, published by Carlton Books in 2001, are available at jingrambooks.com.)

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 28 2010
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  • Terry says:

    Best of luck with the book sales…I am sure it is a good read. As you know I have a different perspective on Dale Sr.
    ….so I will not be reading it ….BUT I WILL RECCOMENDED it to some of my adle brained Dale Sr. fan friends….I am sure they will enjoy it.I hope you had a good Thanksgiving….