Junior's win thrilled his dad
Dale Earnhardt was not a man known primarily for his smile. Not among fans, the media and especially not among the other competitors with whom he shared the NASCAR garages and racetracks. For all of them, it was the predatory, message-sending stare of “The Intimidator” that evokes the biggest memories.
Except on one night in May of 2000. On that night, Earnhardt unveiled a smile that none who saw it will ever forget. It was a smile so pure that it only added breadth to the lore of the most legendarily hard-edged stock-car driver to ever pull tight the belts.
“I was fortunate to see that smile more than once,” Danny “Chocolate” Myers, Earnhardt’s long-time gas man and friend, said during a telephone conversation. “But thinking about that night (in 2000) right now, I see that smile right now in my mind. I can see that picture in my mind. It was a cool, cool thing.”
The smile emerged in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was celebrating his win in the NASCAR All-Star Race. Earnhardt Jr. had just won the most important victory of his still-young career and, simultaneously, won what had to be one of the most important victories of Earnhardt Sr.’s life as well.
One victory, two winners, Myers said with a chuckle. And for the simple fact that it made both Earnhardts as proud of the other in a way that all fathers and sons can readily understand.
The victory in the 2000 all-star race was not Earnhardt Jr.’s first in a Sprint Cup car. He had won at both Texas Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway earlier that spring in his first full season in the series.
His father was there for both races. And his father happily strode over to Victory Lane to congratulate his son.
But then, Earnhardt Jr. says, dad would be gone.
Not in Charlotte that night. Earnhardt Sr. stayed in Victory Lane; stayed until NASCAR officials hauled the winning car away for inspection and the lights were being dimmed. It was a huge moment because Junior won and he did it driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his father built from the ground up.
“He was talking to his brother, Danny, and the guys on the team,” Earnhardt Jr. told SPEED.com. “He was really enjoying not only the father-son relationship, but I think he was enjoying the fact that he had built a team that was the winner of the all-star race.”
Earnhardt Sr. loved the all-star race. He loved it as a race and not, as some drivers do, as an exhibition event designed simply to thank fans for their support of NASCAR.
He won it three times — in 1987, 1990 and 1993.
“Could have won more of them,” Myers said. “We were awful close a couple of times.”
Earnhardt had a part in some of the most memorable all-star moments. “The Pass In The Grass,” perhaps the most famous all-star moment, comes to mind. And the ’93 race where he jumped the final restart to beat Mark Martin.
Earnhardt would win all-star races — almost win others — for a reason. The format with its segments and restarts and go-for-it atmosphere played right into Senior’s wheelhouse.
“Every race was a big deal for him,” Larry McReynolds, a former crew chief for Earnhardt, said. “But that being said, it was his style of a race. He loved late-race cautions ... because it gave him one more shot. In his mind, (he loved) getting up there on that wheel, pulling those belts a little bit tighter and getting after it. And nobody could do that better. When you threw a race out there that was fairly short and there were no points involved and you didn’t have to worry about no ramifications whatsoever, that was just right up his alley.”
Earnhardt Jr. has just the one victory.
Earning a second all-star victory this year could be problematic for the 36-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver. He has not yet qualified and will have to win or finish second in the Sprint Showdown to get a start in the 2011 field, or get in by being voted in by fans.
Junior was asked about the all-star race recently at Richmond. Asked about the possibility of missing the race, having to go through the Showdown or having to rely on his popularity with fans.
He low-keyed it, saying, “The most important thing is just focusing on the points races, the races that matter toward the championship. When we get to all-star weekend, however things are lined up is how things are lined up.”
But people who know Earnhardt Jr. — and his father — are not really buying that.
“I think (the all-star race) means a lot to him,” McReynolds said, “because of the success his dad had in that race. I think because of how much that race meant to his dad, how successful his dad had always been in it, of the races he’s won, including the Daytona 500, it is right up there at the top of the charts.”
It would certainly mean a lot to a lot of fans should Junior add a second all-star victory to his legacy.
This year’s race is scheduled for Saturday. It will be broadcast on SPEED beginning at 7 p.m. ET.