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Loyalty and self-destruction: The backstory of Big E's final win

Dale Earnhardt celebrated the last victory of his career on Oct. 15, 2000 at Talladega Superspeedway, and it was epic. Getty Images

For Kenny Wallace, the value of the struggle was validated in a heavy splash of Absolut vodka spun through a glass of Five Alive orange juice cocktail. The sweet concoction was Dale Earnhardt's drink of choice, unique and self-made, just like he was.

And he didn't fix one for just anybody.

But on Oct. 15, 2000, as dusk crept toward dark, that's what Big E poured with great appreciation. During postrace inspection following the can't-believe-that-just-happened Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Earnhardt invited Wallace to visit his motorhome and recount the final fine details of the impossible, and to celebrate victory.

And to celebrate loyalty.

Earnhardt adored loyalty, perhaps more than any other human trait. To those who earned his favor, he displayed appreciation for loyalty shown him in many ways -- bear hugs, neck grabs, verbal jabs, love taps, finger-points, simple hellos, a crooked grin. For Wallace, that cocktail in his hand was liquid proof.

"You take huge pride that someone you respect so much likes you," Wallace says now. "To this day, you'd think it happened last week. I go to the DMV to get my license in Kannapolis [North Carolina] and they're so nice to me -- that race is why. I know that for a fact.

"Kannapolis lives, eats and breathes the ghost of Dale Earnhardt, and that was a very special day for him."

Earlier that day Wallace chose to push Earnhardt through a frenetic Cup Series field, all the way to the lead and ultimately to victory, from 18th to Victory Lane with only a handful of laps to do it. He chose to help Earnhardt over potential victory for himself -- a decision 15 years gone by that, he figures, ultimately defined him as a racer.

Though there was no way to know it just then, it would be Earnhardt's final win, and it stands tall today among his most memorable. For many Earnhardt fans, the only ones that rank as highly are the 1998 Daytona 500 and The Winston 1987, the infamous "Pass In The Grass."

Earnhardt passed four-wide at Talladega that day. He passed on the apron, too. Whatever it took.

"He was back there in the back, got fed up, said f--- it," Dale Earnhardt Jr. laughs now.

At the time, it seemed miraculous. Today it seems impossible.

"It was amazing, Earnhardt poking the holes and Kenny pushing him through them, slicing up through there," said Andy Petree, who owned the No. 55 Square D Chevrolet Wallace drove that day. "I really thought we had a chance to win. But I should have known better."

Dr. Jerry Punch joined NASCAR Hall of Famers Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett in the ESPN broadcast booth that day. As the laps wound down, they all stood to watch what promised to be a scintillating sprint to the finish. They noted this leader and that leader, prognosticated who might get the right run at the right time to claim victory.

"Suddenly, Benny says, 'And don't you forget 'bout Earnhardt, either,'" Punch says now. "He has this sheepish grin on his face. Ned and I look over at him like, 'You've got to be nuts!' Suddenly, like he was shot out of a cannon, here he comes. From the top of the track to the apron passing cars, and he never lifted [the throttle].

"You ever tried to talk while you're smiling? We were all three, mouths wide open, smiling watching the master. I look over at Ned. His face is red. Benny's face is red. We had no idea it would be his last win. It's like watching Michelangelo. It was like the alarm clock went off inside that 3 car."

Both Earnhardt and Wallace had pitted with some 10 laps remaining. Both had bad service stops. And therefore both restarted deep in the field. All seemed lost. Wallace exited pit road disappointed. Talladega, he thought, was a keen opportunity to win.

The RAD Group, a technical information alliance between Richard Childress Racing, Andy Petree Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc., produced several victories at Daytona at Talladega during its life span, and Wallace felt capable of adding to that success.

That final pit stop seemed to thwart that thought, as Wallace exited pit road in 19th position, assuming he had no chance to get back to the front in time to contend. Then he looked in the rearview mirror.

Earnhardt.

"All this happened because me and Earnhardt both had horrible pit stops, like real bad," Wallace said. "They drop the green flag, it's panic mode. There's only 10 to go and we're dead last. I passed [Earnhardt] through [Turns] 1 and 2, and then he got back by me on the backstretch. That's where it got interesting."

Earnhardt wore white driving gloves that day, easily seen by competitors through the back glass of the No. 3. As Wallace followed Earnhardt into Turn 3, he got an invitation.

"I seen his big ol' paw come up, waving like crazy," Wallace recalled. "He wanted me to help him. When a legend says to you, 'I need help, help me,' waving me on, you say, 'Hell yes! Yes sir!' If you're gonna help anybody at the end of a race at Talladega, that's the guy.

"I stayed loyal to him. And I can specifically remember ... man, he just parted the seas."

That's not to say Wallace didn't consider trying to beat Earnhardt. Fate played a role. As the white flag flew over the Winston 500, Wallace saw Mike Skinner and Dale Jr. on the inside. Just as he and Big E passed them on the outside for the lead, Junior bombed it to the bottom, below the apron, to try to pass Skinner.

He nearly wrecked in front of the entire field.

"I don't remember anything really until the very end," Junior recalls. "I was running second behind Mike Skinner, and I knew dad was way back. So I was thinking about what I needed to do to win that damn race. I was going to sit there until the last minute, and it was really, really hard to stay patient. All the sudden I saw dad coming hard in the outside line.

"When they got there up beside Skinner, they were there long enough for me to sit and think, 'S---! I can't push Skinner past Daddy and help him win this race!' Because Dad wasn't too excited about having a teammate, much less me pushing that teammate, to a win."

Conflicted about whether to stay tightly tucked behind Skinner and wait for the chance to pounce, or relent and lift out of the throttle, Junior lifted out of the throttle to create separation. The internal battle about how to proceed was torturous.

"Dad's line was moving so well, and I didn't want to put all my chips on Mike and having him win the race, because Dad would be really pissed. I made a stupid decision coming out of the tri-oval to go by Mike.

"He wasn't moving [as if to say]: 'You're either passing me on the apron or you're following me.' I had to lift, and fell back to like 14th [position] instantly. It was weird."

Instantly, Earnhardt Jr. knew, he'd thrown it away.

"Once Dad got the lead I thought, 'Damn it, if it had been anybody else, I could've pushed the hell out of them and put up a whole lot better fight to win that race,' " he continued. "As soon as I saw it was Dad, and I had Skinner in front of me, I started half-assing it.

"Knowing what I know now, I should have pushed the s--- out of Mike, pulled out and won. But I was so worried Daddy would think I self-destructed.

"It was hard to do what I wanted to do knowing what he'd want me to do."

For Junior, the opportunity to race with and against his father was catching the wildest of his childhood dreams. But on that October afternoon at Talladega, those dreams hit a crossroads at 200 mph.

"That was the toughest part of being on the racetrack with him -- not doing what you needed to do, but doing what he wanted you to do," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That was hard."

It was especially difficult that day.

"They took off and yarded the s--- out of everybody," he said. "That's one of the things I think Kenny Wallace is most proud of. He talks about it all the time."

Wallace's teammate, Joe Nemechek, had a fast car that day, too. He started on the pole. But for that one race, Nemechek's car was painted differently than normal.

Typically, Nemechek's No. 33 car was royal blue and white, the Oakwood Homes colors on the hood. On that day, his car was black and silver, a tribute to the Charlie Daniels Band.

Wallace didn't know who it was, and in that era hopping out of line to try to beat Earnhardt at Daytona or Talladega was daunting. Or just plain stupid. Earnhardt was so adept at the aerodynamic drafting techniques required at both tracks, Wallace said "nine times out of 10" competitors chose to follow him to the front rather than try to help someone else attempt to beat him.

"I feel this head of steam -- I got a great run coming to the white flag and I'm gonna pull out to pass him," Wallace said. "I took a picture in my mirror and didn't recognize the car behind me. It was my own teammate and I didn't even know it!

"Once I stayed in line I couldn't get to his back bumper. We went down the back straightaway, and he started zigging and zagging all over the place, to break the draft. Well, I zigged and zagged right with him."

Several weeks later at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Earnhardt pulled Wallace aside for some advice. Next time, keep your car straight. Don't follow my zig-zags.

"He wanted to teach me something," Wallace laughed. "I thought, 'Damn it!' "

After they took the checkered flag, Earnhardt eased toward Victory Lane while Wallace pulled his car to a stop on pit road. He hopped out and tried to process what had just happened. Earnhardt's victory earned him a million-dollar bonus check from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds.

"That made the race incredibly special," Wallace said. "I got out of car and those loud speakers are blaring, all I could hear, over and over, is 'Thanks, Kenny Wallace -- he helped me win.' Kenny Wallace this. Kenny Wallace that.

"At that moment, I realized the gravity of what just happened. When you're in the car you're just going, focused. When the race was over, I had time to breathe and listen. That was the legendary Winston 500."

When the Victory Lane celebration wound down, Earnhardt wandered over to the set of RPM 2Night, on which Wallace was a guest analyst. He threw his arm around Wallace and squeezed, and asked, 'Herman! What do I owe ya?!"

Wallace wanted nothing more than affirmation. Earnhardt had already given so much.

See, in 1988 Wallace was stuck in St. Louis, slugging away on small tracks in the American Speed Association. His brother, Rusty, asked Earnhardt for a favor: Give Kenny a chance. And so he did.

Later that year, Kenny Wallace made his first NASCAR national series start at Martinsville Speedway -- in Earnhardt's No. 8 Goodwrench Chevrolet. When Wallace mentioned it that evening at Talladega, Earnhardt seemed touched and humbled.

"I'm glad you remember that," Wallace recalled Earnhardt saying.

Later on in the motorhome, the pair hemmed and hawed and relived the race, how amazingly it unfolded and how impossibly it ended. Thinking back on it now, Wallace is given rare pause.

"Before Dale Earnhardt died, before they went to Daytona that year, he sat the team down and said to Dale Jr. and Michael [Waltrip], 'If you do what Kenny Wallace did for me, if you stay loyal, we can win this race,' " Wallace said.

"I stayed loyal to Earnhardt. I wanted to win that race. I had one shot. I made a decision. I'm really proud of that decision."

Punch and Parsons left the broadcast booth, went down the elevator and into the car to the airport in complete silence. As they neared the airport, Punch finally spoke.

"Our hearts were still pumping -- it was almost too hard to breathe, to watch those final laps," he said. "Finally, I look over at Benny -- neither of us can hardly talk, and I said 'I can't believe what we just saw! Benny, that's not humanly possible!'

"And Benny cracked that same sheepish grin again. And he said, 'Doc, he ain't human. He's Earnhardt.' "