2000 NEXTEL All-Star Challenge Victory Dale Jr.'s Favorite
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won 17 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races and captured two NASCAR Busch Series championships.
There have been many special moments during the third-generation racer's career, including his emotional triumph in July 2001 at Daytona International Speedway, the track where his legendary father was killed just six months earlier.
So it was interesting when stock car racing's most popular driver revealed during a recent press conference at Lowe's Motor Speedway that his favorite moment is actually one that isn't even included among his career statistics.
"That win here in the All-Star race was, and still is, the favorite moment of my career-being in victory lane with my dad," Earnhardt Jr. said about the night in 2000 when, as a rookie, he drove the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet to victory in what is now the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge.
"The wins that I had before, he (Dale Earnhardt) would come in and shake everybody's hand and take off. That was the only victory lane that he stood in the entire time-he was there for the whole half-hour, 45 minutes we were there, even as the car was taken off for inspection he continued to stay," Earnhardt Jr. recalled. "He was talking to his brother, Danny, and the guys on the team. 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.
"That was a big, important race to him. It's the best of the best. There are no points, there is no reason to be conservative," Earnhardt Jr.
continued about the race that returns to Lowe's Motor Speedway Saturday night, May 19. "There is no excuse for not having your A game for that race.
It ain't, 'Well, I took a fourth or a top-five because it was a great points day.' or whatever. It's all out-there are no excuses and you come with your A game, you run hard and that's what you get in the end. That was your best that night.
"That was a race and a format that dad really admired," Earnhardt Jr. said about his father who won the All-Star race three times. "I think what he wanted as a driver-it meant the most to him. It was right up there with winning the (Daytona) 500. I think winning it as a car owner was something he never really imagined, so that was pretty cool to see him enjoy that moment that night."
Earnhardt Jr. is the only rookie to win the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge and his victory not only surprised the racing world, it surprised him.
"We didn't even think we were going to be in that race. We had just won at Texas a couple weeks earlier," said Earnhardt Jr. "I remember in victory lane in Texas looking at Tony (Eury) Jr. We just got hit with the wave of excitement from winning our first race, and I looked at him and said, 'You know we're in the All-Star race now. I hope you got a good enough car for that; because that's a big deal. That's 20 cars and we don't want to run around the back of that race.' We were a rookie team and we didn't have but maybe six or seven cars built. But we brought a good one."
Early in the 2000 running of the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, Earnhardt Jr. bounced off the wall and many thought his hopes of victory were left on the speedway wall along with a big streak of red paint.
"I was running as hard as I could to run third in the first segment and we hit the wall," recalled Earnhardt Jr. "The car slowed down about a half-tenth and I was a little nervous that we had hurt the car a little bit.
"But we had stumbled across something in our practices that week by accident that worked really well in the last 10 laps-the 10-lap deal at the end. The new tires we kept coming in and getting every two laps-every time the caution came out-were helping a lot, too. We learned something and applied that to those last 10 laps and smoked 'em.
"I was just amazed to be in that race," Earnhardt Jr. added. "It's different than any other race. When you're in the 600 or any other race you set a pace-you set a comfort level and a pace. You're working on the car-thinking hard about the car.
"When you go into the All-Star race, you better have your car set up right. You let it all hang out from the first corner to the last. It's totally different. It's more like the racing that I enjoyed in the late models-the 50-lap sprints, the 100-lap features. You go hard from start to finish and you're totally worn out. You're more drained mentally and physically after 80 laps of that than you are the 600. For some reason, some of the hardest races are those short ones that you've really got to put your whole heart and soul into."
Not only is Earnhardt Jr. a big fan of the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, he has a special place in his heart for Lowe's Motor Speedway, his home race track.
"One of the best things that 'Humpy' (Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway) ever did was build those condos over there," Earnhardt Jr. said, motioning toward Turn 1. "As a little kid, I had a great view of the race track and all the races. I couldn't wait for Charlotte to come around.
"Before then, we would park on the hill here in the road course in the middle of Turns 1 and 2. That was a real good vantage point. That was where the Earnhardts and the Eurys and everybody got together and parked their trucks. I was a little 10-year-old out there rolling my race cars down the banking of the road course during the race. I have watched a lot of races here, been to a lot of races here and just seen so much change with this race track.
"This track is the pacesetter, the standard-barer for every other facility in the sport. The things that they have done here to improve and make this the spectacle that it is are really impressive. It is appreciated, especially by a guy that lives down the road," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I feel like I've got a big connection to this place and a real good relationship with the track. Even though it is not a living, breathing thing, it does have a personality and it does have a way of reaching out to you every once in a while-good and bad. I feel like I've got a good relationship with it."
Earnhardt Jr. will be chasing his second NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge victory on Saturday night, May 19, and a limited number of frontstretch seats are still available.
Tickets can be purchased by calling the Lowe's Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS or online here.