North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Known as “The Intimidator,” the Kannapolis native earned the nickname because of the menacing black car that became his trademark and an aggressive driving style in which he would do anything — including wrecking a rival — to get to the finish line first. It’s an approach that earned him a legion of passionate fans, along with 76 wins and seven NASCAR Cup championships — tied with Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson for the most ever.
“He was to NASCAR what Elvis was to rock ’n’ roll,” former crew chief Larry McReynolds said.
Although he might not have been as popular with his fellow drivers as he was with his fans, he clearly had their respect. That was illustrated on Feb. 15, 1998, when, after 19 unsuccessful attempts and numerous close calls, Earnhardt finally won his first Daytona 500. When the race was over every crew member of every team lined on pit road to congratulate him.
Three years later on the same track, Earnhardt was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 500 — a race that was won by Michael Waltrip in a car Earnhardt owned. His death rocked the sport, but it also underscored how influential he was. Because of the circumstances surrounding his accident, NASCAR altered its safety rules, including the mandatory use of the HANS device — a head and neck restraint Earnhardt refused to wear because he considered it uncomfortable.
A second-generation driver whose father Ralph won the NASCAR Sportsman championship in 1956, his son Dale Jr. went on to win 26 races and become the face of his generation of Cup drivers. In addition to his Cup success, Earnhardt Sr. also set records with 11 wins and four titles in the IROC series, which featured drivers from different styles of racing. He was a member of the inaugural class of inductees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.