At Bristol International Raceway (now Bristol Motor Speedway) on April 1, 1979, 28-year-old Dale Earnhardt drove his No. 2 Rod Osterlund Chevrolet to Victory Lane for his first win in only 16 Winston Cup Grand National (now Sprint Cup Series) starts.
And that was no April Fool’s Day joke.
26,000 spectators witnessed Earnhardt’s 3 second margin of victory over 2nd place driver Bobby Allison. Earnhardt led multiple times during the 500 lap event and he took the lead from Allison for the last time with 25 laps to go. He received a purse of $19,800 for the victory.
“I’ll probably believe it in the morning,” Earnhardt said, according to an article written by Greg Fielden. “This is a bigger thrill than my first ever racing victory. This win was in the big leagues—the Grand Nationals. It was against top caliber drivers. It wasn’t some dirt track back home.”
Earnhardt’s new crew chief, Jake Elder, had only been with the team for three races but his experience and instincts told him that Earnhardt was special.
“I like Darrell (Waltrip),” Elder said, according to Fielden’s article. “He’s a helluva driver. But at this point in his career, I think Dale is showing more potential than Darrell did at the same stage.”
In previous years, Earnhardt had made a handful of starts in NASCAR’s top division for multiple teams. His first start was in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, driving for Ed Negre; he finished 22nd.
Earnhardt’s career best finish, prior to his first win, was fourth which he earned in two separate races. In 1978, he managed a fourth place finish at the Dixie 500 in Atlanta and in the race prior to his first victory, Earnhardt finished fourth at North Wilkesboro; he was driving for Rod Osterlund in both events.
After the Atlanta event, Earnhardt expressed his desire to continue driving for Osterlund.
“All I have to say is I hope they give me this ride next year for the entire season,” he said, according another article by Fielden. “I think I could be tough. If some people didn’t know before, they know now I can drive a race car.”
Earnhardt was cocky from the very beginning, but it was certainly justified.
By the end of the 1979 season, Earnhardt had raced his way to 11 top-5 finishes and 17 top-10 finishes which put him 7th in the points and earned Rookie of the Year honors.
He won his first of seven NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National championships the following year.
MORE NASCAR NEWS