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Tuesday, April 17
Earnhardt was a man among boys
By Ray Dunlap
Special to

For the longest time, my favorite racing memory was the 24-hour period of the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. On that crisp November day, Richard Petty ran his final race, Alan Kulwicki overcame the odds and beat Davey Allison and Bill Elliott to win the Winston Cup, and a young kid named Jeff Gordon entered his first Winston Cup event.

What a day.

I had no formal job in NASCAR at that time, but I got into the pits with a somewhat suspect media credential. Being there for all that history and getting up close to my heros was a great thrill. I stood on the pit wall after the race and cried as the King took a final lap and waived to his fans. I drank a beer with some of the new champion's crew as the party carried on long after the gate to Victory Lane was locked. I chased a few autographs from some of the drivers I thought would not be around much longer.

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt came from the middle of the field to the front with just a few laps to go to win the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega.

As I left the speedway that night, I knew I had been a part of something special.

Ten years from now, who knows what will stand out as my favorite racing memory, but for now I have moved my '92 Atlanta memory to No. 2. That's because last October I was part of the broadcast team for ESPN's coverage of the Winston 500 from Talladega Superspeedway. Bob Jenkins was off chasing the open-wheel racers of the Indy Racing League, so Dr. Jerry Punch moved up to the play-by-play position in the booth. I joined John Kernan and Bill Weber on pit road. We had this configuration on many broadcasts through the year, but that show was extra special.

The reason: Dale Earnhardt.

Believe me, the late Earnhardt made just about every race I worked special for one reason or another, but this race was truly unbelievable. In the late stage of the race, I was standing in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit and the tension was as thick as molasses. The kid was up front and I had covered his pit stall all day. I thought he was a sure bet to win. There was no way his old man was going to make it from 17th to first in those final few laps. No way possible.

But there he came. "Ray, is there something wrong with your headset?" came a call from the production truck. I quickly answered, "No. Why do you ask?" The answer was short and sweet. "Because you're not listening!"

I had never lost my concentration about what was required of my job before that incredible finish. The last four or five laps of the race I ran up and stood on the pit wall and screamed and yelled and jumped up and down. Could it be possible that the "Man in Black" was going to pull off another restrictor-plate miracle? My producer was going nuts: "Ray, where are you ... can you hear me? You have got to get your camera down to the No. 3 pit stall for a crew reaction shot."

I continued to root for old Iron Head. I am not even sure why. Over the years the man had been very mean to me at times, he would pinch me real hard during interviews, pour water on my shoes, shake my camera when I was talking to other drivers and he blew me off about 40 percent of the time.

But when Mike Skinner and Dale Jr. made contact in the tri-oval, my heart about jumped out of my chest. You see, I was sure this was going to be an Earnhardt vs. Earnhardt finish. At least that was what I was hoping for. That is why I was not paying attention to my job. The race fan in me had punched the TV announcer in the face and said, "Hold on for just a few more minutes – I am watching this."

"There are only two laps left, you have got to get down there," he bellowed into my ear. "Yes, I hear you!" I replied.

But still I did not move. My feet were cemented in Little E's pit box. The cars rolled through the frontstretch and out of my sight. Every fan in the stands watched in pure amazement. Big E had made his move and now there was only four-and-a-half more miles to run. And then all of the sudden, like Mr. Spacely screaming at George Jetson, I realized I was still working. Oh my God! Come on, Corky! (My trusty cameraman.) And off we ran down pit road at the fastest speed ever. You see, it was 10 or 12 stalls away, and if we didn't have the pictures to tell the story, our butts were grass.

Somehow we got there just in time. The Intimidator crossed the stripe and the crew went crazy. So did everyone in the grandstands and probably back in the TV truck. I knew right then and there as I reached up and gave Richard Childress a big high-five that I was again a part of something very special.

R.C. stepped off the pit box and kissed crew chief Kevin Hamlin right on the lips and hugged crew member Danny Lawrence. The red light on my camera came on and I heard "Go Ray."

I have no idea what I asked Richard on the show, but I know I was wondering if he appreciated how great he had it at that moment. Although it was Earnhardt's 10th win at Talladega, I had a feeling it was his greatest at that facility (and maybe even of all time). I have only been present for about 25 of Dale Earnhardt's 76 NASCAR victories, but this win had to rank up there with his greatest accomplishments.

The last eight or nine laps of that race were a blur to me, but now that Dale is gone, I can remember every detail. I will never forget the reaction of the crowd that day, or the look on R.C.'s face, or the panic that came over me when I realized I might have blown the visuals of the most important race of the year, or how big the smile was on Earnhardt's face in Victory Lane.

I have long since forgotten all the things Big E did to pester and annoy me. I will never, however, forget that fall day in Talladega. Earnhardt was larger than life that day. He was extraordinary, the class of the field, a man among boys.

There will be a pair of races at Talladega this weekend and I will be there to cover the action for RPM2Night. I should be thinking about who might get an advantage from the rule changes or about safety measures or the points race, but all I can think about is that Earnhardt won't be there to thrill the fans and make me forget I am there to do a job.

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