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LARGER THAN LIFE
Mark Beech
February 06, 2008
Big E and the Big Time
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February 06, 2008

Larger Than Life

Big E and the Big Time

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THE 1990s SAW THE ARRIVAL OF NEW STARS, INCLUDING JEFF GORDON, but the decade belonged to one man: Dale Earnhardt. He'd been one of the upstarts in the '80s, challenging David Pearson and Richard Petty, but in the '90s Earnhardt was a throwback. With his take-no-prisoners driving style, the Intimidator won four titles, 35 races and legions of fans, many of whom looked at him and saw themselves. "I think everybody is angry about having to drive in urban areas," said Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler. "They hate the traffic with a passion. Earnhardt drives through traffic too, and he won't put up with anything. So Earnhardt is playing out their fantasies." � Led by Big E, racing had never been more popular. Television ratings were through the roof, and attendance was routinely measured in the hundreds of thousands. NASCAR expanded its schedule to include a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, signed a multiyear, multibillion-dollar partnership with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports and handed out more prize money than ever before. It was the realization of a dream for NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who passed away in 1992 at age 82. The racing circuit he had begun at Daytona Beach in 1947 had grown into one of America's biggest sports franchises.

DECADE AT A GLANCE

1990
DAYS OF THUNDER debuts in theaters in June, and Derrike Cope debuts in the winner's circle in February, taking the 500 after Dale Earnhardt's tire shreds on the final lap. The victory is one of only two Cope will have during a 24-year career.

1991
"SWERVIN' " ERNIE IRVAN watches a crash in his rearview mirror with three laps to go, then crosses the finish line first under caution despite nearly running out of fuel. He is the fourth driver born west of the Mississippi to win the Great American Race.

1992
SEVENTEEN MONTHS before he dies from injuries sustained when his helicopter crashes in the Talladega infield, Davey Allison wins his lone 500. After competing in his 33rd Daytona and finishing 16th, Richard Petty retires in November.

1993
NED JARRETT is at the microphone to broadcast the finish as his son Dale wins his first 500. With Jarrett's victory, Chevy surpasses Ford as the winningest manufacturer to run in the 500. Chevy cars will win 11 of the next 14 races.

1994
THREE WEEKS after winning the second of back-to-back Super Bowls, Troy Aikman is the honorary starter at the 500, which Sterling Marlin takes in his number 4 Chevy. Marlin wins by just .19 of a second, holding off Irvan, the lap leader for almost half the race.

1995
MINUTES AFTER winning the second of back-to-back 500s, Marlin rolls into Victory Lane, then drawls of being able to hold off Earnhardt, who finishes second, "Luck went our way."

1996
EARNHARDT COMES close again, but Jarrett's Ford crosses the line first. It is the third time in the last four Daytona 500s that Earnhardt has finished second. Says a frustrated Dale Sr. after the race, "We couldn't do nothin'! The damn Fords were too strong!"

1997
TEAM OWNER Rick Hendrick goes 1-2-3 at the 500, and at 25 years, six months and 12 days, Jeff Gordon becomes the youngest driver to win the Great American Race.

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