Remember when Dale Earnhardt passed 17 cars in five laps to win his final race at Talladega?


Kenny Wallace’s day was done.

It was the Oct. 15, 2000 race at Talladega Superspeedway — The Winston 500 — and Wallace’s No. 55 Chevrolet was stuck on pit road during a caution with 15 laps to go.

“My Crew Chief, Jimmy Elledge, called for right-side tires only,” Wallace remembered. “We had something go wrong and Jimmy got frustrated and said, ‘All right, let’s just change all four.’ So we had four new tires and when I came off pit road I thought I was going to be last.

“I looked up in the mirror, and that black No. 3 was behind me leaving pit road, too. I keyed my radio and asked what happened to Earnhardt. They said he had a bad stop, too.”

Over two decades later, and as the series returns to Talladega this weekend — 21 years after Earnhardt tragically died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 — Wallace still remembers that race.

“You talk about timing and circumstance,” he said. “That race doesn’t happen without me and Dale having bad stops.”

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The Earnhardt-Wallace relationship

With five laps to go on that sunny afternoon in Talladega, Earnhardt and Wallace were stuck in the back of the pack. Earnhardt, sitting on 75 career wins, was 18th.

Wallace, who had never won a Cup race, was a few cars in front of Earnhardt as the laps ticked down.

In just a few short miles, those two would somehow lead the field to the checkered flag for Earnhardt’s final, and perhaps most improbable, win of his career.

Kenny Wallace got his racing start in NASCAR thanks to Dale Earnhardt.

Kenny Wallace got his racing start in NASCAR thanks to Dale Earnhardt.

“Some say, ‘Oh, he could see air,’ ” Wallace said of Earnhardt’s prowess on superspeedways. “No. It’s really simple. He knew how to get to that front. He was a man’s man, and he knew what he was doing. The reason we all followed him was because we knew he was going to the front.

“And he was going there whether he had to spin you out or not.”

It was also important that Earnhardt, who won three Cup Series races at Daytona and 10 at Talladega, trusted you enough to work with you.

That trust, Wallace said, started over a decade earlier, when Earnhardt gave him his first real shot as a driver.

“I think it was September of 1988, and he allowed me to drive his No. 8 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in the Busch Series,” said Wallace, who got his start in NASCAR in 1984 as the crew chief for Joe Ruttman.

Wallace’s older brother, Rusty Wallace, won 55 times over a 26-year Cup career. A 1989 Winston Cup champion and 2013 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Rusty raced against Earnhardt from 1980-2001.

That relationship, Kenny said, helped pave the way for Earnhardt to take a chance on him at the end of the 1988 season.

“I don’t know why, but he liked me,” he said with a laugh. “After I was a crew chief, I started racing and wanted to come to NASCAR. Earnhardt told Rusty, ‘Hey, let’s put Kenny in my Busch car at Martinsville.’ “

Dale Earnhardt (3) leads Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in 2000. Earnhardt won the race, his final victory before dying the next spring at the Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt (3) leads Mike Skinner and Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in 2000. Earnhardt won the race, his final victory before dying the next spring at the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt works his way to the front

That decision paid off years later, when Earnhardt and Wallace restarted deep in the field in the waning laps of the Winston 500.

With five laps to go, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led Bobby Labonte and Earnhardt’s teammate, Mike Skinner, into Turn 1. Wallace and Earnhardt found themselves marred in the middle of the field, separated by four cars.

“I got on the radio and told Mike, ‘Well, Dale’s not going to be much help. He’s too far back,’ ” said Larry McReynolds, Skinner’s crew chief that season — McReynolds was atop Earnhardt’s pit box during the 1997-98 seasons.

“For me, it didn’t really register what Dale had done until after that race,” he added.

Earnhardt got behind Jeff Gordon after a daring three-wide pass that left a tire mark from Rich Bickle’s No. 60 Chevy alongside his right door. The move sent Bickle up the track into Rusty Wallace, allowing Earnhardt to slide past both.

With four to go, Earnhardt got around Matt Kenseth’s No. 17, squeezing him so low that Kenseth’s two left tires skidded through the grass. Earnhardt took advantage of the chaos, making a four-wide pass through the middle that shoved Wallace up the track.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to get back down to stay with him,” Wallace said.

Luckily, the two were able to link back up and continue their march.

With three to go, Skinner led Earnhardt Jr. on the bottom while John Andretti led the middle lane that included Earnhardt and Wallace.

The two were able to move Andretti out of the way, with Wallace shoving Earnhardt to the leaders as they crossed the stripe.

“The Intimidator is scraped and beaten on his side, but he will not be denied,” play-by-play announcer Dr. Jerry Punch said at the time. “Mr. Restrictor Plate knows there are two laps to go.”

Earnhardt pulled alongside Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 in second, pinning his son to the bottom of the track as he made the pass on the high side. Now, the only car left was Skinner’s No. 31.

“Where in the world did he come from?” McReynolds said with a laugh.

As they went into Turn 3, Wallace can remember seeing Earnhardt’s white gloves motioning him to push him into the corner.

As the two came to the white flag, Earnhardt managed to pull even with Skinner as the crowd of 170,000 roared.

“And you could hear them,” Wallace remembered.

As the three cars entered Turn 1 of the final lap, Wallace and Earnhardt managed to nudge ahead of Skinner, who lost drafting help and began to fade. The only thing in front of Earnhardt now was his 76th checkered flag.

In less than 13 miles, he had worked his way to the lead.

“There was something about his ability to stay patient,” McReynolds said. “I think if, today, you said, ‘List me the top 10 drivers in their ability to figure things out at Daytona or Talladega’ … if you polled 100 people in the garage area, I’d be shocked if about 99 of them didn’t have Dale Earnhardt Sr. at the top of their list.”

Dale Earnhardt celebrated his final NASCAR Cup Series win at Talladega on Oct. 15, 2000.

Dale Earnhardt celebrated his final NASCAR Cup Series win at Talladega on Oct. 15, 2000.

Dale Earnhardt’s final win

Wallace, of course, knew that better than anyone. That’s why he helped him get through the field, and that’s why he was content following him to the checkered flag.

“I knew in my heart of all hearts, if I pulled out to pass Dale Sr., everybody would just say, ‘Oh, you dumbass.’ And they wouldn’t have went with me,” he said with a laugh. “Back in those days, you went with Earnhardt everywhere.”

So Wallace stayed in line, and Earnhardt took the checkers for his 76th, and final, NASCAR Cup Series win. Just a few months later, he would die on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Wallace, meanwhile, would race on and off for the next 15 years before joining the Fox Sports broadcast team in 2015.

And while that runner-up finish was the closest he’d ever get to winning a Cup race — he did win nine times in the Busch Series — finishing second to Earnhardt was never a bad consolation prize.

“You know, we didn’t know that would be the last win of his life,” Wallace said. “It became a lot more meaningful after that. It’s almost like I became this hero because after that everybody would say, ‘I love you Kenny Wallace.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’

“They said, ‘Because you pushed our man to the last win of his life.'”

NASCAR on TV

Today

5:30 p.m., NASCAR Xfinity Series: Qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway, FS1

Saturday

11 a.m., NASCAR Cup Series: Qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway, FS1

1 p.m., ARCA Menards Series: General Tire 200 at Talladega Superspeedway, FS1

4 p.m., NASCAR Xfinity Series: Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega Superspeedway, FOX

Sunday

3 p.m., NASCAR Cup Series: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, FOX

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Dale Earnhardt once passed 17 cars in five laps to win at Talladega



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