Kirk Shelmerdine was the boss in the pits for 44 of Dale Earnhardt’s NASCAR Cup Series wins and four of his championships.
They were teammates for a few races in 1981 and then from 1984-92. Earnhardt won championships in 1986, ’87, ’90 and ’91, and Shelmerdine steadily built a reputation as a solid, smart crew chief, expert at car building and race strategy.
In the end, said Shelmerdine as he prepares to join his former driver (Earnhardt) and team owner (Richard Childress) in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it was quite simple.
“Dale said, ‘I want to be in front of the other cars. This thing needs to be able to go there,’ ” he told NBC Sports.
It usually wasn’t that simple, of course, but Shelmerdine, 64, said he and Earnhardt quickly became of the same mind.
“We knew each other well,” he said. “I knew what he liked as far as setups. You had to have the seat just right and the steering wheel just right. Now you have a whole team of scientists working on that stuff. But it was important for us to get it right back then. The races were long.
“We knew we wouldn’t go to the track and fight the same things every week. I understood his feel, and we gauged the cars the best we could for that. When we unloaded, we were usually pretty good.”
Shelmerdine, Matt Kenseth and Hershel McGriff will be inducted into the Hall of Fame Friday night (8 p.m. ET, Peacock) in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As Earnhardt stacked up the wins and championships, finding success became a matter of routine and repetition, Shelmerdine said.
“Over time, I watched an awful lot of laps that guy made,” he said. “I could almost tell by how he was running in the corners if the car was good or not and what the problem might be. I already had a couple of ideas already in the bullpen to use on the next pit stop.
“He had built his own cars for years and years and understood the mechanical part well. It became easy to read each other.”
What made Earnhardt great?
“It’s tough to put your finger on that,” Shelmerdine said. “I don’t care who you are – you have to trust the guys who are building your car for you and understand that they’re on your side. It can be lonely out there if the crew guys don’t like you. We knew he was going to run good no matter what, and he gave 100 percent. He inspired confidence. We won and lost together.”
And Earnhardt was in that group of people who are rarely wrong, Shelmerdine said.
“He could back his van into somebody in the infield parking lot and claim it was their fault for parking there,” he said.
Shelmerdine left pit road in 1992, saying he was “worn out” and that he was satisfied with the team’s accomplishments. Always interested in the driving part of the game, he won three ARCA races in sporadic starts from 1993-2008 and raced 26 times in Cup and 13 in Xfinity without winning.