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The legendary Dale Earnhardt had won nearly everything that mattered in NASCAR by the middle of the 1996 season, but that didn’t stop The Intimidator from wanting more. Earnhardt was already halfway to a six-pack of Coca-Cola 600 victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and No. 4 was within reach.

However, Earnhardt finished second that Memorial Day weekend and wasn’t happy to learn from winner Dale Jarrett just how close he came to another trip to Victory Lane.

Dale Jarrett won the 1996 Coca-Cola 600 after a rain delay

The 1996 Coca-Cola 600 was a marathon beyond just covering 600 miles as the longest race on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The race at Charlotte Motor Speedway started 70 minutes late because of rain, and a rash of four wrecks between Laps 142 and 157 helped push the finish deep into the night.

There were 19 lead changes, but Dale Jarrett dominated the back half of the race. He began a 45-lap stint out front on Lap 227, regained the advantage for 59 laps shortly afterward, and then held the lead for the final 62 trips around the circuit.

Dale Earnhardt finished second, and Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon were the only other drivers in the field of 43 to finish on the lead lap.

Jarrett earned $165,250 for the Coca-Cola 600 win, and Earnhardt collected $97,000.

Dale Earnhardt wasn’t happy to learn how close he came to winning

Dale Earnhardt won the Coca-Cola 600 three times. | Brian Cleary/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt won the Coca-Cola 600 three times. | Brian Cleary/Getty Images

Though he led just seven of the 400 laps, Dale Earnhardt was in the 1996 Coca-Cola 600 hunt at the end. In fact, Dale Jarrett says the seven-time Cup Series champion likely would have won had the race gone another lap. That’s because Jarrett learned afterward that his Yates Racing No. 88 Ford was on the verge of engine failure as it crossed the finish line. On either the last lap or while the car rolled through the cool-down, a bolt supporting the mechanism delivering oil to the engine broke.

“I wasn’t going to make much more than a lap before the engine was going to expire because I was going to have no oil pressure,” Jarrett explained on the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “We were very, very, very lucky. That’s the only ‘600’ I ever won.”

Most drivers had left by the time Jarrett returned from media obligations that night at the Coca-Cola 600 and learned from his team what nearly happened. The future Hall of Famer didn’t tell Earnhardt about it until the following weekend at Dover International Speedway.

“He was not happy,” Jarrett recalled. “He said, “You know, to have a car that good and to be that lucky, it’s not fair in one night.’”

Jarrett had his response ready.

“I said I was so far ahead I could have probably coasted around anyway and beat you for another lap,” he said. “He didn’t take that very kindly.”

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].


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