By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will be running their version of a ‘home game’ when the teams run the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This race is the longest event of the season, and can it be a career defining moment if a driver rolls through victory lane at the conclusion of the race.
In a new weekly series called ‘NASCAR Flashback’ we will be taking you for a trip down memory lane to relive some of the most incredible races in the history of the sport. This week we will be looking back at the 1993 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
May 30th, 1993 marked the day that everyone, who didn’t understand what Dale Earnhardt was all about, woke up. Everyone was treated first hand to a showing of classic Earnhardt, where he proved why he was nicknamed ‘The Intimidator’ and why he was considered one of the best drivers ever.
On an early pit stop Earnhardt was clocked going too fast down pit road, this resulted in a pass through penalty that came under the green flag, so he would lose a lap. It would have been easy for any driver to fold in this situation, but that just wasn’t Earnhardt’s style. He would fight his way back on to the lead lap, and from there Earnhardt would charge back to lead the majority of the middle stages of the event.
However a little bit later Earnhardt was penalized for another pit road miscue, as he had an extra man over the wall. This would send him to the back of the field, but Earnhardt would fight back again. He would make it all the way back up to second place, but Dale Jarrett was closing in on lapping Earnhardt and the rest of the field rather quickly.
It was on lap 327 of the 400 lap event that Earnhardt was hit with his third penalty of the night. This time it was a penalty for rough driving, as Greg Sacks was sent spinning as Earnhardt was working his way around his lapped car.
“Well I didn’t really get into him, I don’t know why they penalized me.” Earnhardt said, ” He got loose in the air and spun out, I was just close.”
According to NASCAR’s spokesman at the time, Chip Williams, the penalty was an easy call to make.
“We looked at the television replays five or six times,” said Williams. “We asked the crew chief of the 68 car to ask Greg what happened and Greg said Earnhardt spun him out. There was absolutely no question in our minds. The incident was uncalled for and the penalty was instituted to make up any advantage Earnhardt might have gained.”
The severity of the penalty was yet another lap, so with just 73 laps remaining in the event it appeared Earnhardt’s bid for the win was done… but those who knew Earnhardt knew not to ever count him out.
Earnhardt got a big break with 50 laps to go when Rusty Wallace, who was driving with a broken wrist, brought out the caution for a spin. This got Earnhardt back on the lead lap, and from there he wouldn’t be denied.
It took Earnhardt just eight laps to cut and slice his way to race leader Ernie Irvan. With the fans on their feet Earnhardt made a breathtaking pass for the lead. Irvan complained that it was a dirty move, but further review showed that Earnhardt had position on Irvan on the outside, when Irvan slid up. Earnhardt then cut low under Irvan to successfully make the pass in turn one with 39 laps to go.
Earnhardt would not relinquish the lead the rest of the way, and he would go on to win by 3.73 seconds despite suffering three penalties on the night, including two of them that resulted in one lap penalties. Despite playing catchup all night long, he also managed to lead the most laps on the night with 152.
Ken Squire, who called the race mentioned, “It’ll be interesting to see what he says when he makes it back to pit road at the conclusion of this one.”
The fans stayed standing in awe of what they just saw. They continued to cheer, and one fan even proudly displayed a sign that said, “If god were a race car driver, his name would be Earnhardt.”
It was truly a remarkable moment in the history of the sport, and it was also one of the biggest comebacks in the history of sports in general.
Earnhardt was asked if the penalty for rough driving got him mad, “Well it didn’t make me happy, but I did all I could to get my lap back. We got that back, and caught a caution. To get back to the front is hard to believe.”
21-year old rookie Jeff Gordon impressed many by finishing second. This was Gordon’s highest career finish, at the time. Dale Jarrett, who won the Daytona 500 months earlier, came home third in Joe Gibbs’ No. 18 car followed by pole-sitter Ken Schrader and Ernie Irvan. Bobby Labonte was another surprise on the day. He finished eighth and was one of two rookies to finish in the top-ten in this race.
On his victory lap Earnhardt would pay tribute to his fallen competitor Alan Kulwicki, by running Kulwicki’s traditional victory lap that he coined ‘The Polish Victory Lap’.
“I got a little emotional taking that lap for Alan. You know everyone here at Charlotte remembers him well, we miss him a lot. There ain’t nobody that can bring him back now, but all we can do is have good memories of him.” Earnhardt said.
Kulwicki was killed in an airplane crash in April of 1993, but tragedy would strike the sport again later that season. Davey Allison, who finished a disappointing 30th in this race, would die in a helicopter crash in July. We had lost two of NASCAR’s brightest stars in just a matter of months.
Earnhardt would go on to defeat Rusty Wallace for his sixth championship in 1993, but both drivers paid tribute to Kulwicki and Allison with victory lap in the final race of the year. Each driver was equipped with a flag of their fallen friend’s car number hanging out their windows.