April 29, 2015
Dale Earnhardt and I began racing in the Winston Cup Series around the same time. My first rookie year in 1979 started the same year he began, but my first rookie year didn’t last long.
By the time I had earned my first full-time ride, he was already established as a weekly contender and as the 1980 champion.
We were friends off the race track. My kids and their mother went down to Dale’s lake house and played with Kelly and Dale Jr. They rode go-karts, and I’ll never forget Dale came to the track one day and said “Hey, you owe me some money.”
I said, “What do you mean,” and he said, “Well, your kid wore the tires off of Dale Jr.’s go-kart, I need some new tires.”
We went out to dinner a few times, and it was really neat. But in life, when you’re in a competitive situation with someone, it changes things a little bit.
After I made the move to Hendrick Motorsports and started to win races, we weren’t getting invites to dinner anymore, or the kids didn’t play with each other like they used to.
Now through the years, on the track, it’s documented, and also seen in the Days of Thunder, the rivalry we had when we put those helmets on and climbed in those racecars. We banged fenders, and I got run into a lot.
As his nickname stuck with fans as “The Intimidator,” I called him “The Eliminator,” because he’d come behind you and towards the end of the race, he’d run into you and eliminate you.
The race fans loved it; he had, and still has, a tremendous fan base. NASCAR and track promoters alike loved Earnhardt’s racing style because it helped with filling seats in the grandstands and helped with TV.
He and I, back in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, were the ones banging fenders on the racetrack and creating controversy. Like in the Days of Thunder movie, the meeting in Daytona with the boss, Bill France Jr. was real; that was Dale and I after a race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He never came to Victory Lane when I won, nor did I when he won, but that was okay. He was a competitor; he didn’t like to lose and I didn’t like to either.
He was friends with all the drivers, he made friends with everyone. He would joke with you, come over and talk with you, squeeze you, but he didn’t care behind-the-wheel of the racecar. He’d knock you out of the way.
When I saw his car in the rear view mirror, I just kept racing, but a lot of drivers would move over and let him go by. Well, with me being a hard-headed Yankee, I raced hard all my life and I was never intimidated by anyone.
I raced hard, raced clean, so when I saw the No. 3 in my mirror, I knew it was going to get tough.
Even after he had run into you, spun you out, or did whatever he did, when I’d see him coming, I would think, “Well, he won’t do it this time,” but darn, he did it. You’d give him the benefit of the doubt, but he’s always prove me wrong because he would use that bumper.
But once we left the track, we left it all behind us.
My brother Todd had a ranch up in Moorseville, North Carolina, and I had a couple of horses there. Of course, Dale was a rancher and a horse guy, and Todd’s property backed up into Dale’s that way.
Dale and Dale Jr. rode over one day and we jumped on the horses and went for a little ride together. By the way, he didn’t bump me or spin me out on horseback. We just had a good time.
There’s no question Winston Cup racing would ever be the same after his death. It would have changed after he retired but not seeing the black No. 3 on pit road or seeing him in the rear view mirror anymore was very sad.
The best thing about Dale that a lot of people don’t know is that he helped a lot of people outside of racing. He would help people who were in a rut, people who were down and out, or people who needed to go somewhere in his airplane.
He didn’t do it to influence people to like or respect him. He was genuinely a good person in that respect. But when he put the helmet on, he turned into this other guy, a guy I call “The Exterminator.”
Dale Earnhardt changed NASCAR racing, and I’m glad I was in the same era with him. Without him, I’m sure NASCAR would’ve survived, but with him, it sure grew bigger and faster, no question.
Even though he spun me out a few times, I still miss him.
NASCAR Media Group