Richmond moments: Dale Earnhardt vs. Darrell Waltrip and the 1986 NASCAR race that fed the legend of 'The Intimidator' (2024)

Doing anything to win a race, even if it meant knocking a competitor out of the way, is very much part of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s essence, hence nicknames like “The Man in Black,” “One Tough Customer” and “The Intimidator.”

But when, exactly, did Earnhardt begin to take on the reputation that would come to define a career that included a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and 76 wins? A case can be made that it occurred Feb. 23, 1986, at Richmond Raceway. Earnhardt might not have won the race, but that day has taken on legendary status because of what unfolded over the final laps on the then-half-mile oval.


Although Earnhardt was known as an aggressive driver (some would say overly aggressive) long before that Cup race at Richmond 35 years ago, that reputation hadn’t yet taken hold as Earnhardt’s trademark identity.

This was all about to change.

“(Earnhardt) had beaten and banged quite a bit before, but I think it’s the first time that it really, really came out that he could be aggressive,” Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s car owner, told The Athletic. “That’s why people started really following him.”

Earnhardt had the fastest car for much of that spring Richmond race, leading 299 of 400 laps. But Darrell Waltrip, the defending Cup champion, emerged in the closing laps in his Junior Johnson-owned Chevrolet and closed on Earnhardt’s rear bumper.

Johnson, who died in December 2019, usually viewed the race from his team’s pit box, but didn’t often give his drivers instruction on how they should drive. On this day, though, for reasons no one knows for sure, he decided to stand atop a truck in the infield to take in the race. And from his vantage point, he didn’t like what he saw. The NASCAR Hall of Famer came over the radio and told Waltrip to pass Earnhardt now, not to wait until the last lap as Waltrip planned.

“I’m trying and trying to pass Earnhardt and I can’t get by him, he’s running me all over the place,” Waltrip told The Athletic. “With two (laps) to go, Junior came on the radio and said, ‘Pass that S.O.B. now.’ I knew he was serious so I figured I better do something.”

Heeding Johnson’s edict, Waltrip amped up his efforts to find any way he could to maneuver around Earnhardt. What ensued has become one of the more controversial incidents in NASCAR history, and one of the top 75 moments in Richmond’s history as compiled by the Richmond Historical Committee in advance of the track’s upcoming NASCAR weekend, when it will celebrate its 75th anniversary. (The track will unveil the top moments week by week leading up to the fall race weekend).


Utilizing the physicality that is often seen on a short track, Waltrip laid his front bumper to the rear of Earnhardt’s car multiple times. None of these attempts were enough to get Earnhardt to relinquish the lead. Next came a nudge from Waltrip that slid Earnhardt up the track, opening up enough of a gap for Waltrip to go ahead on the penultimate lap.

“I drove off into Turn 1, dropped the tire down off the track in the dirt and slid up the hill and bump into Dale a little bit. Not hard, I didn’t wreck him or anything,” Waltrip said. “Coming off Turn 2 I thought to myself, ‘Man, Junior Johnson is going to be so proud of me. I moved Earnhardt out of the way, took the lead and I’m going to win this race.’ And about that time…”

From here, events and the intent behind the actions are up for interpretation. What is not up for debate is the aftermath, including surprise race winner Kyle Petty, who was shocked himself.

With Waltrip to his inside, Earnhardt made contact with the right rear of Waltrip’s car as they sped into Turn 3. The contact sent Waltrip slamming hard into the guardrail, and Earnhardt also uncharacteristically spun out. Geoff Bodine and Joe Ruttman, who were running third and fourth, were also collected.

Whether or not Earnhardt deliberately turned into Waltrip is where the controversy stems.

“He hooked me in the right rear,” Waltrip said.

“That was about as dirty and low down as you can do a driver,” Jeff Hammond, Waltrip’s crew chief, told The Athletic. “I couldn’t believe that he hooked him and turned him in the outside wall like that.”

Those in the Earnhardt camp saw things differently.

“I don’t think Dale raced Darrell any harder than Darrell raced Dale,” Richard Childress Racing crew member Chocolate Myers told The Athletic.

“For all the years Dale drove for me I’ve never seen him do anything wrong,” Childress said. “I saw a couple of people back into him or get on the brakes too hard or things like that, but I’ve never seen Dale do anything wrong. … Junior, Darrell and a few people thought he was overaggressive, but I thought it was really hard racing.”

“How’s that for an answer?” Childress adds, laughing. (He was being sarcastic — at least on the former point.)

Earnhardt was fined $5,000 for reckless driving.

This marked the most notable instance in Earnhardt’s career where his aggressive style brought scrutiny. And that all this played out before a national audience on TBS only helped propel a persona that would turn him into one of NASCAR’s all-time infamous personalities. Similar incidents over the years further burnished an image that Earnhardt could be ruthless behind the wheel.


“This was one of the races that solidified in the fans’ minds — the guy sitting in the grandstand in the third row — that ‘Hey, this guy’s a little bit different than these other guys,’” Kyle Petty told The Athletic. “He drives a little bit different and he’s my man, because I’m an outsider and he seems to be an outsider here.

“Earnhardt had that air in those early years that the establishment of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, the established superstars, were against him because he was the young guy coming in. So I think that’s part of that early mystique and beginning to set the storyline and the legend.”

Before Richmond, Earnhardt was held in high regard by Waltrip, Johnson and Hammond. Afterward, it was no longer the case.

Waltrip says it was years before he and Earnhardt resolved their differences. It wasn’t until he signed to drive for Earnhardt’s team during the 1998 season as a replacement for the injured Steve Park that the two champions made amends. Hammond, who had been close friends with Earnhardt, and Johnson each confronted him immediately after the crash asking him what happened.

“What I remember was the level of anger that was coming from Junior Johnson in that situation,” Hammond said. “That is something through all the times and all the crashes I ever worked with him, I never saw that level. Junior always took things in stride and usually he never would say a whole lot about that we need to go down there and kick somebody’s butt or I need to go grab that driver by the nape of their neck. That wasn’t Junior. He was a hard-nosed driver and car owner but he didn’t let his emotions get the better of him.

“On that particular day when (Earnhardt) tried to explain what went on, Junior Johnson told him, ‘Get away from me, boy. I don’t want to talk to you.’ And when Junior tells someone something like that, if you don’t listen you’re probably going to be getting a hard jab because Junior had a pretty wicked left.”

Richmond also signified a changing of the guard, ushering in an era where Earnhardt supplanted Waltrip to become NASCAR’s dominating force.


Entering the 1986 season, Waltrip had won three of the past five championships and was considered one of the favorites to repeat that year. Earnhardt won the 1980 title, but in the years that followed his career had been a roller coaster before finding stability when he rejoined RCR in 1984, placing him again on an upward trajectory.

Earnhardt went on to win the 1986 championship and five other titles before a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 killed him. Waltrip finished runner-up to Earnhardt in 1986, the last time he’d seriously contend for the championship.

“We were building momentum,” Childress said. “We had a tough year in ’85, we lost like 11 engines or something. Then we came back in ‘86 and ‘87 and won the championship and that’s when RCR really started coming alive, and Dale helped bring the whole program together. So we just made a good team from there on out.”

While tempers flared and fingers pointed elsewhere inside Richmond’s tight confines, Kyle Petty found himself in victory lane trying to comprehend what transpired.

When the top four cars piled into one another in Turn 3, Petty was scored in the fifth position and well behind. At the time, NASCAR rules stated that when the caution came out, drivers were permitted to race back to the line before slowing down. So Petty navigated around the damaged cars of Waltrip, Earnhardt, Bodine and Ruttman to take the lead with three laps left. And because there were no overtime rules, that meant the race was effectively over and Petty had won for the first time at the Cup level.

Even as he drove by the four guys who had been ahead of him, and even when his crew chief Eddie Wood informed him was leading, Petty was in absolute disbelief.

“It was a lap or two before Eddie Wood came on came on the radio said, ‘I think we’re going to win this race. I think you’re leading; I think we’re the leader,’” Petty said. “And I said, ‘No. No flipping way we’re leading this race.’ When there are four cars in front of you in a Cup race you assume someone is going to find their way through.


“And lo and behold, we won the race.”

A Petty winning a NASCAR race was certainly not unheard of; however, that was due to Lee and Richard Petty, Kyle’s grandfather and father, who had won a combined 10 Cup championships and 254 races.

Kyle Petty had found success fleeting. His lone win of any kind came in his stock car debut seven years prior in an ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway. Since then, there had been more bad days than good, with critics wondering if he would ever live up to the Petty name. His Richmond win made the Pettys the first family to have three generations win at NASCAR’s top level.

“I was just happy to win something,” Petty said. “… I had never won anything. I didn’t run local short tracks. I didn’t run the (Xfinity) series at the time so I had never won anything. I won an ARCA race at Daytona and that was the only thing I had won in my life. And whenever I’d go to my dad’s house, he had trophies everywhere. And all I wanted was a trophy. Let me get one trophy. And I’ll be happy. Just let me win one; I just want one trophy.”

Petty would be victorious in seven other Cup races during a career that concluded in 2008. It wasn’t the career his grandfather and father experienced, but nonetheless, it was still respectable. And it includes a maiden win that isn’t remembered so much because of what he did but the wild circ*mstances surrounding it.

Not that Petty is going to offer an apology.

“I got the trophy and the check and nobody’s ever come back after 35 years and asked for it back,” Petty said. “I got it.”

(Top photo: ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Richmond moments: Dale Earnhardt vs. Darrell Waltrip and the 1986 NASCAR race that fed the legend of 'The Intimidator' (2024)


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