Born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1951 (for many years he claimed he'd been born in 1952) Ralph Dale Earnhardt was the most controversial competitor in the history of motorsports, who transcended this controversy to become an icon in racing. Taking after his father, Carolina short tracker Ralph Earnhardt, Dale raced in the late 1960s and the 1970s on area short tracks and made occassional Winston Cup Grand National starts during the 1970s - including a particularly nasty encounter at Atlanta in 1976 where he rammed a sliding Dick Brooks and tumbled viciously through the track's third and fourth turns.Earnhardt was hired by California businessman Rod Osterlund to drive his #2 racecars in the 1979 Winston Cup Grand National season; he won at Bristol, TN and despite missing four races due to injury in a vicious crash at Pocono, PA, he won the top rookie title of that season, then followed up with the 1980 Grand National championship. Osterlund's team folded in mid-1981 and Earnhardt drifted somewhat, winning three races for Bud Moore, before joining Richard Childress Racing, a team he'd driven ten races for in 1981.With RCR, Earnhardt suddenly became a truly powerful force, but along the way his roughhousing style of racing led to numerous multicar crashes. Among the more infamous incidents occurred at Richmond, VA in 1986 when he hooked Darrell Waltrip head-on into the third-turn guardrail with a few laps to go, a wreck that wiped out five cars. "I don't think NASCAR fined Dale Earnhardt for what he did at Richmond, I think they fined him for all the things he's done leading up to Richmond," Waltrip said afterward.Earnhardt never changed, and his instigational style of racing even led to a disapproving news piece on ABC's World News Tonight in 1987, a rarity for the sport at the time. Earnhardt spent many years as the most booed driver in the sport. But in the 1990s it began changing. His style didn't change - he was involved in no fewer than six ugly incidents during 1993, including a nasty tumble for Rusty Wallace and a multicar wreck that took out Al Unser Jr. and others at Daytona - but as the decade progressed the booing began to disappear. The rise of Wallace and younger drivers like Jeff Gordon - whose own style of racing, including detonating crashes, directly took off from Earnhardt's - began to harden fan support for Earnhardt, even after more controversial cheap-shot incidents such as with Bobby Hamilton at Rockingham in 1996.Earnhardt won seven Winston Cup titles, tying 'Richard Petty' for the most in the sport's history, but his quest for an eighth title became more and more difficult as the 1990s progressed, and his focus appeared to shift as the decade went on; he began to show some of the Hollywood angles openly displayed by his close racing buddy Tim Richmond in the 1980s, taking in a growing number of film and TV appearences unrelated to racing weekends, and his marketing of himself became almost bigger than his racing - "Dale Earnhardt can deny it, but the T-shirt sales and the souvenirs are more important than the race team," Earnhardt's former engine builder Lou Larosa commented in the 1990s. "Where is the incentive when you're making $4 million racing and $40 million selling souvenirs?" Also helping Earnhardt's popularity was that he was winning less and less, and when he did win it became a major news story; no win was more such than his last, the 2000 Autumn 500 at Talladega, which was the only time Earnhardt won Winston's big 5 bonus of $1 million.Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, in uncharacteristic circumstances - he was not racing for a win, but blocking off other cars so his son, Dale Junior, and friend Michael Waltrip could finish 1-2 in the 500; Earnhardt was drop-kicked by Sterling Marlin and hit the wall in Four; his lapbelt broke and his head struck the steering wheel, killing him.