Tony Stewart (left) will never forget what Dale Earnhardt (right) did for him at the 1999 Coca-Cola 600.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in 2014 as a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt and his enduring legacy.
What’s it like running the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day? In a word, it’s brutal.
And no one knows that better than Tony Stewart, who did it twice, in 1999 and 2001.
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During Stewart’s first shot at the double, in his rookie season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he found that out.
Dale Earnhardt was not much for small talk. But when the man known as "The Intimidator" let his actions speak for him, those actions spoke volumes.
"You knew when he said things that the words he used weren’t necessarily what the message was he was trying to convey to you," said Stewart, who was a friend of Earnhardt’s. "He had that wink in his eye, he had that grin. That said a lot of words without ever opening his mouth."
It was in Stewart’s first attempt at completing the double that Earnhardt lent him a big hand in a time of need.
The date was May 30, 1999. It was a big day: In addition to Stewart’s attempt at the double, the Coke 600 also was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first Sprint Cup start.
Stewart’s day began in his home state of Indiana, where he finished ninth in the Indy 500. Immediately after the race, he hopped onto a Joe Gibbs Racing private jet, which flew him to Concord, N.C. From there, he took a helicopter to the infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway. After he landed, he walked across the infield and other drivers came up to him, shook his hand and congratulated him on his Indy run.
When Stewart got to Earnhardt, the seven-time champion didn’t just shake Stewart’s hand. He put one arm around Stewart’s waist and lifted him clear off the ground, rubbing the top of his head with his other hand. It looked to all the world as if some proud father was lifting up his son after hitting the game-winning home run in a Little League game. Stewart’s jaw dropped and he clearly was shocked.
Earnhardt set him down and walked away without saying a word.
That night was a typical late May evening in Charlotte, with stifling temperatures and suffocating humidity. The cockpits of the cars were brutally hot for NASCAR’s longest race. Jeff Burton, driving the No. 99 Roush Racing Ford, won the marathon ahead of Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin.
Stewart finished fourth, Earnhardt sixth and Earnhardt Jr. 16th. For the day, Stewart raced 1,090 out of a possible 1,100 miles, earning top 10s in both races, a truly remarkable feat given that he was a rookie Cup racer.
But Stewart paid a terrible price physically. He got sick in his Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac at one point and when the grueling 600-mile Cup race concluded, he pulled up to the gas pumps behind pit road and collapsed in his car.
"Obviously, I didn’t understand the importance of nutrition and all that at the time," Stewart said. "I felt really rough after the race. I was just tired. I didn’t have any nutrition during the day, and my body was out of gas. I just sat there with a cold, wet towel. I was out of energy."
Out of nowhere, The Intimidator walked up to Stewart’s car, which was mobbed by photographers, crew members and NASCAR officials. Without saying a word, the crowd somehow sensed Earnhardt’s presence and stepped aside as the seven-time champion approached.
"I just was sitting there, and as I started getting out of the car, I got grabbed," Stewart said. "And that wakes you up right away, when somebody grabs you real abruptly like that. And you turn around and you see Dale and you see the grin on his face."
Earnhardt gently sat Stewart down at the edge of his car, slapped him lightly on the face, bent down and whispered something in Stewart’s ear.
"The first thing out of his mouth is, ‘Have you had enough yet?’" Stewart recalled.
"I told him, ‘I think that’s all I’ve got for one day.’"
And just like that Earnhardt turned and walked away. Gone.
But Stewart always will remember what Earnhardt did, an act of simple human kindness in pulling him out of the car and Earnhardt’s nonverbal display, showing Stewart how much he respected what the rookie had done that day.
Actions, not words, were Earnhardt’s style. No flowery speeches, just a quiet act that spoke more in a few seconds than any words could ever say.
Stewart definitely got the message.
"I’d built a pretty good relationship with him in a short amount of time, and for him to come up and respect what I was doing that day, for him to come up and acknowledge that, that really meant the world to me," Stewart said.
"He showed me how much he cared about me as a person. You always knew where you stood with him. In a situation like that, if he didn’t like you, he wasn’t going to come up and do that. It really made me have a sense of pride knowing that he cared enough about how my day went and how I felt after that race, that he came up to me. Basically, without flat saying it, he gave me a hug and said, ‘Good job.’"
Tony Stewart arrives at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 after racing in the Indy 500 earlier in the day.