Dale Earnhardt’s Red-hot Run Ended When the Pit Crew Forgot His Lug Nuts

The man climbed out of an ambulance to finish the 1997 Daytona 500, so it’s no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have done whatever it took to finish a NASCAR Cup Series race. Seven years before the memorable Daytona moment, Earnhardt overcame a major blunder in the pits to finish a race that played a huge role in the fourth of his seven series championships.

Earnhardt already attained legendary status, and his day at the Mello Yello 500 merely added to that legend as he fought through adversity.

Dale Earnhardt’s 1990 championship run included a red-hot sequence

NASCAR Cup Series legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. looks on before a race circa 1990. | ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt was a three-time champion before beginning the 1990 NASCAR Cup Series season in the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevy. Rusty Wallace had edged him by 12 points for the 1989 championship, but Earnhardt came out of the gate the following season with four straight top-10 showings, including victories at Atlanta and Darlington.

Mark Martin’s only win by mid-season was at Richmond, but he was racking up multiple high finishes. The tide turned when Earnhardt won at Michigan, Daytona, and Talladega in a four-week span. It started a stretch of 12 straight finishes (including two more wins) in the top eight.

With the season down to the final four races, Martin (3,869 points) and Earnhardt (3,853) had pulled away from Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott, and the rest of the field. Earnhardt had ground to make up on Martin, but he also had momentum.

All he needed to do was to stay out of trouble.

Dale Earnhardt’s pit crew forgot his lug nuts

Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt posted a 1-2 finish at North Wilkesboro Speedway the week before the NASCAR Cup Series came to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Mello Yello 500 for the 26th of 29 races, and they were the focus of the championship battle. However, Davey Allison ruled the day in Concord, North Carolina, breezing to a win as leader Michael Waltrip took a late fueling stop.

Martin finished a modest 14th in his Jack Roush Ford, but he fared better than Earnhardt, who endured back-to-back problems beginning with a caution flag 101 laps into the race. Earnhardt was in the pits when Alan Kulwicki clipped Ernie Irvan’s car, shoving it into the right rear of Earnhardt’s ride.

The RCR crew made quick repairs, but Earnhardt hit the turn 4 wall on lap 115, forcing him in for repairs. As Earnhardt exited the pits, the left rear wheel, which hadn’t been properly secured during a four-tire change that ran amok, flew off and sent the car spinning.

To the amazement of all, five Earnhardt crew members grabbed two tires and jacks and ran down pit road toward the first turn to work on the car just ahead of the hauler dispatched to bring the No. 3 to the garage.

Earnhardt logged 205 more laps, but he finished 25th, and Martin expanded his lead by 33 points without ever leading a lap. Had Earnhardt not finished the race, Martin would have gone on to the season championship.

The Intimidator salvaged the season and won the points race

Dale Earnhardt made a small dent in Mark Martin’s lead by placing 10th, one spot ahead of Martin, the week after the Mello Yello 500 mishap. That set up his big finish.

On Nov. 4, 1990, Earnhardt won the Checker 500 in Phoenix while Martin finished 10th. That pushed The Intimidator into the lead by a slim six points. A week later in Atlanta, Earnhardt placed third to Martin’s sixth and clinched his fourth NASCAR Cup Series title.

The final standings showed Earnhardt with 4,430 points to 4,404 for Martin. It marked the first of five times that Martin finished second in the points race, the closest he would come to a championship.

All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.

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