Dale Earnhardt : biography
In 1994, Earnhardt achieved a feat that he himself had believed to be impossible – he scored his seventh Winston Cup championship, tying the legendary Richard Petty. Earnhardt was very consistent, scoring four wins, and after Ernie Irvan was sidelined due to a near-deadly crash at Michigan (the two were neck-and-neck at the top of the points up until the crash), won title by over 400 points over Mark Martin. Earnhardt sealed the deal at Rockingham by winning the race over Rick Mast. Although Earnhardt continued to dominate in the seasons ahead, this would be his final NASCAR championship.
Earnhardt started off the 1995 season by finishing second in the Daytona 500 to Sterling Marlin. He won 5 races in 1995, including his first road course victory at Sears Point. He also won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a win he called the biggest of his career. But in the end, Earnhardt lost the championship to Jeff Gordon by just 34 points.
1996 for Earnhardt started just as it had done in 1993 – he dominated Speedweeks only to finish second in the Daytona 500 to Dale Jarrett for a second time. Earnhardt won early in the year, scoring consecutive victories at Rockingham and Atlanta. In late July in the DieHard 500 at Talladega, he was in the points lead and looking for his eighth title despite the departure of crew chief Andy Petree. Late in the race, Ernie Irvan lost control of his No. 28 Havoline Ford Thunderbird, igniting a frightening crash that saw Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet hit the tri-oval wall nearly head-on at almost 200 miles per hour. After hitting the wall, Earnhardt’s car flipped and slid across the track, in front of race-traffic. His car was hit in the roof and windshield. This accident, as well as a similar accident that led to the death of Russell Phillips at Charlote, led NASCAR to mandate the "Earnhardt Bar", a metal brace located in the center of the windshield that reinforces the roof in case of a similar crash. This bar is also required in NASCAR-owned United Sportscar Racing and its predecessors for road racing.
Rain-delays had canceled the live telecast of the race and most fans first learned of the accident during the night’s sports newscasts. Video of the crash showed what appeared to be a fatal incident, but once medical workers arrived at the car, Earnhardt climbed out and waved to the crowd, refusing to be loaded onto a stretcher despite a broken collarbone, sternum, and shoulder blade. Many thought the incident would end his season early, but Earnhardt refused to give up. The next week at Indianapolis, he started the race but exited the car on the first pit stop, allowing Mike Skinner to take the wheel. When asked, Earnhardt said that vacating the No. 3 car was the hardest thing he’d ever done. The following weekend at Watkins Glen, he drove the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet to the fastest time in qualifying, earning the "True Grit" pole. T-shirts emblazoned with Earnhardt’s face were quickly printed up, brandishing the caption, "It Hurt So Good." Earnhardt led most of the race and looked to have victory in hand, but fatigue finally took its toll and Earnhardt ended up 6th, behind race winner Geoff Bodine. Earnhardt did not win again in 1996, but still finished 4th in the standings behind Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett. David Smith departed as crew chief of the No. 3 team and RCR at the end of the year for personal reasons, and was replaced by Larry McReynolds.
In 1997, Earnhardt went winless for only the second time in his career. The only (non-points) win came during Speedweeks at Daytona in the Twin 125-mile qualifying race, his record 8th straight win in the event. Once again in the hunt for the Daytona 500 with 10 laps to go, Earnhardt was taken out of contention by a late crash which sent his car upside down on the backstretch. Earnhardt hit the low point of his year when he blacked out early in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington in September, causing him to hit the wall. Afterward, he was disoriented and it took several laps before he could find his pit stall. When asked, Earnhardt complained of double vision which made it difficult to pit. Mike Dillon (Richard Childress’s son-in-law) was brought in to relieve Earnhardt for the remainder of the race. Earnhardt was evaluated at a local hospital and cleared to race the very next week, but the cause of the blackout and double vision was never determined. Despite no wins, the RCR team finished the season 5th in the final standings.