Most NASCAR fans know that Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the most popular tracks in the sport. With a capacity of more than 160,000, Bristol is known for housing rowdy crowds and hosting intense races. They call it “The Last Great Colosseum” for a reason.
Since the track’s first sanctioned NASCAR race back in 1961, there have been a number of incredible and memorable races run there. You may have even witnessed, either on TV or in person, a few of those races yourself. But, did you also know that 40 years ago, the Tennessee short track marked the spot of Dale Earnhardt’s first Cup Series win? All the way back in 1979, it would essentially be the catalyst for one of the most legendary careers in all of motorsports.
Dale Earnhardt’s First NASCAR Cup Series Win
It was at the 1979 Southeastern 500 (back when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was still the Winston Cup Series) where Dale Sr. essentially kicked off the career that would include 76 race wins and seven Cup Series championships.
“It was a major accomplishment simply because it was his 16th Cup start,” racing historian David McGee told the Bristol Herald Courier. “Rookies did not win in that era. You had guys like Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker that won all the races. For a rookie to come and win against all those guys in the field was remarkable.”
Earnhardt, driving the No. 2 Chevrolet for Osterlund Racing, would end up taking the lead at lap 474 — wrecking Darrell Waltrip’s No. 88 Chevy race car in the process — and would hold the lead until the end, beating Bobby Allison by three seconds. Waltrip, Richard Petty, and Benny Parsons rounded out the top five.
Now, this sort of finish seems like pretty standard fare for The Intimidator, but according to McGee, Earnhardt had not yet come into his own as the dominant driver that NASCAR fans would come to know and love.
“He was a good driver. If you talked to racers who competed with him they said he was competitive, but he wasn’t dominant,” McGee said. “Maybe not the hallmark of someone who is going to go on to such greatness.”
Dale Earnhardt’s Career After Bristol
As you probably know, Ralph Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s first win was one of many in an illustrious stock car racing career. Winning the 1979 Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year, Dale Sr. moved on to Richard Childress Racing in the mid-’80s (after a brief stint at Bud Moore Engineering), where he enjoyed the majority of his success.
The Kannapolis, North Carolina native would see victory lane a total of 76 times during his career, and would also rack up 428 top-10s. Oh, and, of course, seven Winston Cup Championships.
Sadly, Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Yet, nearly 20 years after that tragic day at Daytona International Speedway, we still remember the legacy of the man who gave so much to the sport of NASCAR.
This post was originally published on April 1, 2019.