The one day I rooted for Dale Earnhardt
"C'mon Earnhardt!" I screamed. "C'mon Dale, you can do it!"
Wow. Had those words really just come out of my mouth? Was I really cheering on Dale Earnhardt?
Indeed I was, for the first and only time.
It was October 15, 2000, and Earnhardt was on his masterful charge to the lead in the Winston 500. Under normal circumstances, I would have probably said something along the lines of "Aw crap, here we go again. He's going to win. Again." Those were anything but normal circumstances, however.
My parents instilled two things in me from birth: a love of NASCAR racing and a loathing of Ralph Dale Earnhardt. As Bill Elliott fans, they despised the man in blue and yellow, then black, and that was passed on to me. I certainly wasn't an Elliott fan either, at least at first; I suppose I just rooted against him to spite my parents since, well, that's what kids do. Davey Allison was my driver, giving my parents and I a mutual enemy in Earnhardt.
So intense were they in their dislike for him that they had me convinced that he was some kind of satan-incarnate. When we lost Alan Kulwicki in April 1993, I put my hands on my hips and spat that Earnhardt had probably come along in his own plane and knocked Alan's out of the sky. My parents couldn't believe I would "make a joke" like that, but I was serious. It was their fault, for they were the ones who'd made their six-year-old son think The Intimidator was the devil himself.
My uncle James, though, was among the legions who felt that Earnhardt was the man. He routinely teased my parents about Elliott's struggles while Earnhardt was piling up the wins and championships. A favorite taunt was reciting to my mother that old joke about the little boy who doesn't want to live with either of his parents because they beat him and a judge asks whom he wants to live with, at which point the boy replies "Bill Elliott! He can't beat anybody!"
A week to the day before the Winston 500, on October 8, we went to the apartment James and my grandmother shared. Bobby Labonte had won that day's UAW-GM 500 at Charlotte, further tightening his grip on the Winston Cup points lead. Earnhardt, meanwhile, had led for a bit before slapping the wall and finishing 11th. I recall James lamenting Earnhardt's plight, as he had fallen more than 250 markers behind Labonte and actually lost second to Jeff Burton. He was still confident, though, that one way or another Earnhardt was going to pull off his eighth championship.
The next day, James passed away suddenly at the age of 54. I made up my mind that, if Tony Stewart or Dale Jarrett couldn't win at Talladega, I would put aside my life-long disdain for Earnhardt in hopes that he could win one for my late uncle.
Come Sunday, my father was still grieving and didn't watch a lap of the race. My mom and I, meanwhile, watched our respective favorites while both keeping an eye on that 3 car. Bill was fast for a while - in fact he led the most laps - but he wasn't part of the wild scrum for the lead at the finish. Nor was Tony, who had a flat tire and fell off the lead lap. And Earnhardt wasn't up there either, mired back in 18th place as the laps clicked down.
Of course he didn't stay there, slicing through the pack like a man possessed in one of the greatest performances not just of his illustrious career but in NASCAR history. The closer he got to the front, the more my mom and I's mutual excitement began to grow. I began to cheer him on out loud, just like any other member of the Earnhardt nation. Finally he drew even with Mike Skinner for the lead as they swept under the white flag. Coming off turn two, he had the pack cleared, with Andy Petree Racing teammates Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek behind him. Amusingly, Wallace didn't recognize Nemechek's car - carrying a special Charlie Daniels paint scheme - as a team car, and the pair couldn't get hooked up to make a run at Earnhardt.
The Intimidator led the pack - some of them crashing - across the finish line for his 76th and final NASCAR Cup win. His record 10th Talladega victory also netted him a $1 million bonus courtesy of RJ Reynolds' Winston "No Bull 5" program.
It still feels strange to recall being so thrilled by a Dale Earnhardt victory, but as I said earlier, those were not normal circumstances. We celebrated like we had during some of Stewart, Elliott, and Allison's great victories, feeling the win and the great performance by which it was attained had done my uncle's memory well.
With the race won, the truce came to an end. At the following weekend's race in Rockingham, things were back to normal: Earnhardt was the enemy, and I was looking for anyone and everyone (with the exceptions of Skinner and Jeff Gordon) to beat him. Things stayed that way up through the conclusion of the Daytona 500 the next February. When Fox Sports first showed Earnhardt's Chevrolet sitting in the grass on the inside of turn four, I laughed. That still haunts me, 13 years to the day later.
As I have grown older and learned more about Dale Earnhardt, I have wished at times that I'd had the chance to grow up in a more objective household. If that had happened, I'm liable to have been a 3 fan. As things were, Earnhardt made the race days fun by playing the villain against my family's variety of heroes. Trouble was, he didn't follow the script at all. The bad guy isn't supposed to kick the heroes' butts week after week after week.
For one day, though, that villain was the hero. And he thrilled me and the rest of the NASCAR nation with one last masterful performance.