Earnhardt History
1996 Season
New crew chief & injuries slow Earnhardt

1996 Season

Starts 31
Wins 2
Top 5's 13
Top 10's 17
Points Rank 4
Crew Chief:
David Smith
Car Owner:
Richard Childress
Car Make:
Chevy Monte Carlo
Car No: 3
Sponsor: GM Goodwrench Service

 

 

Going into the 1996 Winston Cup season, everyone was anticipating a season-long rivalry between old guard Earnhardt and upstart Jeff Gordon. The two drivers had battled fiercely for the 1995 championship, which Gordon had won by just 24 points. Earnhardt wanted nothing more than to win the championship and break Richard Petty's record of 7 Winston Cup titles.

Earnhardt had a new crew chief for 1996. Andy Petree announced that he was leaving for the 1996 season. Petree left to enter a deal with the No. 33 Skoal team that would allow him to inherit the team after serving as crew chief for a couple of years. Filling Petree's spot as crew chief was long-time team member David Smith. Smith had worked with RCR since the mid-80's.

In the first part of the season, Earnhardt was his usual winning self. He barely lost the Daytona 500, as usual. He bumped Bobby Hamilton out of his path in the closing laps to claim victory the following week at Rockingham. A couple of weeks later his crew pulled off an impressively quick pit stop at Atlanta, helping Dale to his second win of the season.

After Atlanta, Earnhardt went several months without a win, but he and David Smith managed to keep the Goodwrench Monte Carlo in the midst of the points battle with consistently consistent finishes.

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Earnhardt's car after Talladega crash.

Going into the fall race at Talladega, Earnhardt had the points lead and looked ready to win his 8th title. Then came the wreck that destroyed Earnhardt's hopes for the championship. Even more, Earnhardt was lucky just to survive. The horrible crash happened when Earnhardt was battling Sterling Marlin for the lead going in Turn 1. Ernie Irvan, who was in third place, made contact with Marlin, sending Marlin right into Earnhardt's right rear. Earnhardt's car turned hard and slammed head-first into the wall at over 190 MPH. Earnhardt's car then flipped numerous times as the rest of the field came racing toward him at full speed. When the debris settled, Earnhardt was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured collarbone and sternum.

Despite the injuries, Earnhardt qualified the next week at the Brickyard, and even started the race before eventually handing the wheel over to Mike Skinner. The following week at Watkins Glen, injuries and all, Earnhardt broke the track record on his way to winning the pole! Earnhardt ran the whole race, leading 51 of the first 54 laps before finishing an impressive 6th, injuries and all.

Still, Earnhardt's finishes at Talladega and Indy left Earnhardt 76 points behind Terry Labonte in the quest for the Cup. The margin only got bigger as the season wound down. Terry Labonte went on to win his second Winston Cup title, while Earnhardt finished a distant 4th.

 



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