Dale Earnhardt could almost be an honorary Georgia Peach. For starters, the North Carolina native remains the all-time winningest driver in Atlanta Motor Speedway history. In 46 starts, he recorded nine victories at the Hampton track.
In addition, Earnhardt celebrated five of his seven championships at the track, as Atlanta hosted the season-ending race from 1986 through 2000. Only in 1990 and 1993, however, did he clinch the title in the season finale.
While Earnhardt's most famous wins took place at tracks like Daytona, Talladega, and Bristol, some of the most important of his 76 triumphs - including his second-career victory in 1980 and his penultimate win in 2000 - came at Atlanta.
The late racer's ties to the area stretched past his on-track successes, however.
A blue-collar working class hero, Earnhardt was probably more popular among Georgia fans than any driver not named Bill Elliott. During Elliott's heyday in the 1980s, a fierce local rivalry built between fans of the two drivers, similar to the national rivalry among fans of Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon a decade later. Even as Elliott faded from competitiveness in the mid-1990s, the banter between his fans and Earnhardt's remained strong right up to the very day Earnhardt died.
In 1996, with the city of Atlanta playing host to the Centennial Olympic Games, it was Earnhardt who discarded his trademark black paint scheme for The Winston Select All-Star Race that May in favor an American flag-themed Chevy with the event logo and "Atlanta 1996" in silver lettering on the hood.
He was a fervent Atlanta Braves fan, often sporting a Braves cap at race tracks rather than a GM Goodwrench sponsor's hat - something few other drivers, if any, could have gotten away with in NASCAR's increasingly sponsor and PR-driven culture. He had many friends - and fans - on the team, including Bobby Cox and longtime coach Ned Yost. Yost even wore uniform No. 3 as in honor of Earnhardt while managing the Milwaukee Brewers.
Still, it was on the track where Earnhardt's finest Georgia moments - and some of the finest of his career - took place.
The 1980 victory was the first of five he scored that season en route to his first of seven championships. In 1988, it was at Atlanta where he first took the iconic black and silver GM Goodwrench paint scheme to victory lane. Though he came up just short in the title fight in both 1989 and in 1995, he closed out each with a win in the season-finale.
Earnhardt's March 1996 victory at Atlanta was the 70th of his career. He would have to wait nearly two years for his 71st: his long-awaited Daytona 500 triumph in February 1998.
The 2000 victory, his only after the track was reconfigured from a 1.522 mile oval to the current 1.54 quad-oval layout, was one of his most thrilling, as he edged Bobby Labonte in a side-by-side duel to the checkered flag.
For his career, Earnhardt led 2655 laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway, recording 26 top-fives and 30 top-10s. His 9.5 average finish at the track ranks behind only North Wilkesboro, Bristol, and Richmond among tracks where he had at least 10 starts. Also, his four poles at Atlanta were his personal best at any track.
All told, Dale Earnhardt was as close to being a Georgia icon as one could be without being born here.