In addition to being a great race car driver – well, now-retired, that is – one of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best attributes is he’s one of the best storytellers in NASCAR.
He could easily write several books – and still have plenty of material left over for more, his tales are so numerous and prolific — and enjoyable.
We awoke Sunday morning to Earnhardt taking to Periscope to remember the late Bobby Hamilton, who passed away 11 years ago today.
And Junior told one of the best stories we’ve ever heard from him.
As he related, back in 1996 Earnhardt was racing Late Models at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. Even though his crew chief said to bring the car into the pits, Earnhardt wanted to make one final practice lap when all hell broke loose: a wreck occurred in front of him and as Earnhardt tried to avoid it by going low, he was rear-ended by another car, with both his and the other car bursting into flame.
The Speedway had a fire truck that responded to the scene, but it didn’t have any water or foam to put the fire out! As a result, both Earnhardt’s and the other driver’s cars “burned to the ground,” Earnhardt said. “Our cars were ruined. I had to haul that thing home, and we were done.”
Junior was uninjured, but still wanted to race. The problem was, he didn’t have a spare car.
Enter Hamilton, who offered Earnhardt a ride – in a Ford, decked out in Petty blue color and with the No. 43 on the door.
Earnhardt was in a major quandary. He never had driven a Ford before.
“I’m thinking, ‘I can’t drive it, because it’s a Ford,’” Earnhardt related on the Periscope video. “But I want to race real bad.
“So I’m calling my dad trying to see if I can get a hold of him and try to ask him if I can drive this Ford. It’s a Petty blue, because Bobby at the time I think must have been driving for Richard in the Cup Series and it had No. 43 on it.
“I couldn’t get a hold of dad, but I got a hold of dad’s general manager. … He said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and drive it. Just don’t talk about it and try not to make too big of a deal about it.’”
Earnhardt had to do some cosmetic alterations before he climbed inside.
First, he used duct tape to cover all Ford emblems – although he left the huge STP emblem on the hood.
Then, he used additional blue tape to cover the 4 on the door, leaving it to be just a “3”, the same number that his father raced in the Cup series.
Even thought the car’s previous driver, Casey Atwood, didn’t care for it, Earnhardt fell in love with his new ride and quickly took the lead.
He appeared ready to cruise to a win. He had lapped all but one car in the field.
And then disaster struck.
The transmission broke with 30 laps to go and what could have been Junior’s only win ever in anything other than a Chevrolet, wound up on the back end of a tow truck.
Even though Junior wasn’t happy with how the day ended, he certainly helped Hamilton feel good, as he sold the car after the race “for quite a bit of money,” Earnhardt said.
And thus ended Earnhardt’s first and only race in anything but a Chevrolet.
But it has to make you wonder, what might have happened if the trans didn’t explode and Junior won — in a Ford. Could history have turned out different?
“Bobby was a good man, so that’s my story,” Dale Jr. said in conclusion.
Great story, Junior. Keep ‘em coming.