REMEMBERING DALE EARNHARDT’S FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP 30 YEARS AGO

The 2010 NASCAR Cup Championship is coming to a close. A tight points battle has formed between a favorite and two others seeking their first title.

Jimmie Johnson is the four-time consecutive and defending crown holder. He was largely a favorite in pre-season polls and is backing up the confidence with a challenge for his fifth straight title.

Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are a pair of very talented drivers who have never won the Cup, but no one is truly surprised to see either of them gunning for the trophy.

Thirty years ago there was another talented driver looking for his first title and challenging the established guard. Thirty years ago Dale Earnhardt was on the verge of winning his very first Cup championship.


Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty were the two veterans also involved in the 1980 title fight. Between the pair, they had won eight of the last nine championships including the previous six. Earnhardt was the series’ Rookie of the Year in 1979 and was a talented driver, yet still considered an upstart in the title tussle.

Earnhardt drove for car owner Rod Osterlund and began the year with known crew chief Jake Elder at the helm. The year started with a second place finish in the season opener in Riverside, Calif. With a fourth place in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt took the points lead and paced the rest of the way.

The team’s first season win came in Bristol’s springtime event. Earnhardt scored his first career Cup win in that race just one year prior.

Elder quit the team partway through the season and 20-year-old Doug Richert stepped into the leadership role and kept the team near the front of the field.

Defending champion Petty won races at North Wilkesboro and Nashville but suffered through engine troubles late in the year to take him from title contention.

Earnhardt won the autumn race in Charlotte while three-time consecutive champ Yarborough won races at Rockingham and Atlanta to give Earnhardt a challenge.

The year ended in Ontario with a third place finish for Yarborough and a fifth place for Earnhardt. The results sealed the first of seven career Cups for the future Intimidator.

Thirty years ago we watched established veterans defend against a good driver with a lot of potential. Little did any of us know that we were watching one of the sport’s all-time greats begin a Hall of Fame path.

In 1980 Yarborough and Petty had already secured their place in the sport’s history. Earnhardt was teasing the world as we watched the tip of his career iceberg.

In 2010 Jimmie Johnson has also secured his Hall of Fame nomination in the years to come. But if Hamlin or Harvick step up and dethrone the champ will we consider ourselves fortunate to see the start of another great journey by a future legend?

(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)

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