The following story is part of Race Chaser Online’s special ‘Month of May’ series both building up to Memorial Day weekend’s runnings of the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 and paying tribute to several special dates during the month along the way.
CONCORD, N.C. — Story by Race Chaser Online Northeast Correspondent Kyle Magda — AP/Chuck Burton photo —
15 years into NASCAR’s All-Star Race, no Cup Series rookie had ever taken home the big bucks.
That made May 20, 2000 a night to remember for the Earnhardt family.
One month prior, two-time defending NASCAR Busch (now XFINITY) Series champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. had scored his first career Cup win at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) in the DIRECTV 500, while another famous last name, Adam Petty, also made his series debut. TMS was also the site of Earnhardt’s first Busch Series win, on his way to the first of his two titles in 1998.
Junior was no one-hit wonder in Cup, adding another victory at Richmond International Raceway one month later. The Pontiac Excitement 400 led up to NASCAR’s annual running of what was then called The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won NASCAR’s all-star night three times during his Hall of Fame career, but had not won the event since 1993 — when Earnhardt took the lead from Mark Martin on the outside with two laps to go to capture his third All-Star Race win.
Earnhardt had been close in the past seven years; close, but no cigar for the 7-time Cup champ. The cigar, however, had plans to stay right with the family.
The night of the 2000 Winston started off with a bang, with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) driver Steve Park winning the Winston Open to transfer into the All-Star Race.
“I gotta thank Pennzoil, this is our first win as a team,” Park said in his victory lane interview with The Nashville Network (TNN). “We’re ecstatic, but this is only one win. This gets us into the big show.”
Steve Park’s early success on All-Star night was short-lived before getting into a crash with Joe Nemechek during the final segment of the Winston.
Earnhardt could smile, with both of his cars in the race along with his own multi-colored No. 3 Peter Max/GM Goodwrench Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
Bill Elliott started on pole in his No. 94 McDonald’s Ford. The 15-time Most Popular Driver started off the 2000 season with a victory in his Daytona Twin 125 qualifier, leading every lap and marking the first time Elliott had been in victory lane as a driver since September 1994 at Darlington Raceway.
The red-and-black No. 94 car with the McDonald’s logo on the front showed the way for most of the night, with Elliott leading more than half of the race. Elliott led on a final 10-lap restart, but dropped like a rock before coming in for four tires. The pit stop put the No. 94 car on offense, but he never made it back to the front, finishing in eighth.
Another Ford driver took the top spot, as defending Cup champ Dale Jarrett put the No. 88 out front, looking for his first-career win in the All-Star race. Jarrett had some breathing room between he and second-place Jerry Nadeau, while the No. 88 appeared to be smoking. The car didn’t slow down, but there was another Dale coming into the picture.
Junior took four tires before the final 10-lap segment, and when the green flag dropped, it was game on for the No. 8 team. The 25-year-old rookie put the tires to good use and stormed his way to the front. Little E passed Big E for the third spot with five laps to go, setting his sights on the leader.
Using the outside lane to his advantage, Junior worked around Nadeau for second. As Eli Gold put it on the TV broadcast, “It is again the Dale and Dale Show, but a different generation of Earnhardt, now in the mix.”
With the No. 88 car still smoking, Junior started to close the gap on Jarrett. On the outside, Junior got to Jarrett with those fresh tires at two laps to go and got a good run off of Turn 4 to see the lead for the first time all night.
Those were the only two laps Junior led all night, but were the most important ones, as he became the first rookie to win NASCAR’s All-Star Race.
“We didn’t come here to run third, we came here to take all the money,” Junior said in his TNN post-race interview.
It was a Dale one-two-three finish (Earnhardt Jr., Jarrett and Earnhardt) in the 16th running of The Winston, and was a harbinger of things to come later in the month. Rookies ultimately took over the month of May at Charlotte, with Matt Kenseth winning the Coca-Cola 600 the week after.
Only one other rookie has since won the All-Star Race — Ryan Newman did it in 2002 after starting 27th.
On Saturday night, rookie drivers Chase Elliott, Jeb Burton, Tanner Berryhill and Matt DiBenedetto could look to add their name to winners of the Sprint All-Star Showdown in an effort to replicate Junior’s stunning feat. Before that could happen, all three have to find a way to get into the All-Star Race, either through a transfer spot from the Sprint Showdown or by winning the fan vote.
But at least on that night, it was first-year frenzy — and Junior etched his name on the NASCAR history books forever by becoming the first rookie to claim NASCAR’s most electric (and richest) night.