Stevie and I were having breakfast and it dawned on me about Feb. 18, 2001. Along with millions upon millions of other folks, we too will never forget the significance of that day.
That’s the day we lost Dale Earnhardt Sr. Now we were fortunate to be close to Dale. Stevie and Dale had a special bond. Since 1994 and including Feb. 18, Stevie always gave Dale his scripture on a note card to put in his race car. I was already in the TV booth that day getting ready for my first-ever broadcast for FOX when she went up on pit road to give him his scripture.
So we were sitting there around the kitchen table imagining what it would be like if Dale were still here. We wondered what he would think about all the things that have gone on in our sport over the last nine years. Some of those thoughts made us laugh. Some of those thoughts made us cry because we miss him dearly.
I don’t know why, but this Feb. 18 was more emotional than others. Maybe it was because we realized it has been nine years since we lost him. Maybe part of it was watching Dale Jr. come up through the field like he did on that last lap Sunday, so very reminiscent of Dale Sr. I think Dale Sr. would have been mighty proud of Junior.
A lot of people criticize me and say I am a cheerleader for Dale Jr. Others say I must be on the Hendrick Motorsports payroll. I feel that Dale Sr. would have taken comfort knowing that someone had Dale Jr.’s best interests at heart. That’s why many times I try to motivate Junior or inspire him to be more like his Dad. God knows if Dale was still around, he would have made Junior be more like him. But the bottom line is he is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He isn’t his Dad. He is his own man. I understand and accept that.
The scripture Stevie gave Dale nine years ago was Proverbs 18:10. "The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The godly run to him and are safe." Now I read Proverbs everyday. I get my strength from Proverbs. 18:10 will always have a special meaning to the Waltrips for a special person.
Like I have always said, Dale and I were “frienemies” — friends half the time and enemies the other half. We respected each other a lot. Not many people know that I even had Dale drive my car at the Fairgrounds in Nashville way back when. It’s another one of those funny stories for another day.
So how ironic and touching that in 1998 when Steve Park got hurt in Atlanta and I had literally just sold my team, that Dale called me to drive that No. 1 Pennzoil car. That was a thrill for me. Although I was in the twilight of my racing career, it revitalized it like nothing else. You have to remember back in 1998, I was beaten into the ground. The pressure and stress of trying to keep my team going despite my sponsor of seven years, Western Auto, going away was immense. What a breath of fresh air it was for me to simply become a driver again. What a revitalization of my spirit to go drive a good car at that.
Folks, we almost won the California and Pocono races together. It was a first-year team with a Waltrip behind the wheel and an Earnhardt as an owner. Maybe that should have been a glimpse of the future for Michael Waltrip, huh? Hindsight is a lovely thing, but looking back I should have simply been a driver my entire career and not stepped off into ownership. Once again, that’s another story for another day.
For those four months that I got to drive for Dale, we renewed our friendship. We had our moments in the past on the racetrack so it was pretty cool to be working together. Well, let me rephrase that — Dale was the boss and I was the employee. Make no mistake, Dale liked being the boss. To be honest, where I was at that point of my career, I liked him being the boss.
So we remember Dale. We remember the things he had done both on and off the track. We remember the people he had touched. We remember how he had touched our sport. Make no mistake, there was no middle ground when it came to Dale and you fans. You either loved him or hated him.
That’s what I miss the most is Dale mixing things up. Like he was famous for saying, “I just wanted to rattle the guy’s cage." Trust me folks, when it comes to rattling cages there was none better.
None of us will ever forget where we were on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001. For me, I was standing in the TV booth for the first time in my life watching my brother win the Daytona 500 while at the same time Dale Earnhardt went to be with the Lord.