Minter: Junior Should Go Backward to Go Forward
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
I read with great interest an article on the ‘Net the other day in which Darrell Waltrip told the Virginian Pilot that he believes Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to go run some Camping World Truck Series races.
“He needs to get somewhere where he can win, and I’d get him in a truck,” Waltrip told the paper. “Not a Nationwide car, a truck. They’re fun to drive…
“I’d go out, and I’d win me a couple of races. I think that’s what he needs, it would really help his confidence, and I think his fans would enjoy seeing him do that. I think it would be a win-win.”
That story brought to mind a night back in October, 2001, when I accompanied Bill Elliott on a trip to Sugar Creek Raceway, a small 3/8-mile dirt track hidden away on a winding back road in the north Georgia Mountains. At that time Elliott hadn’t won a NASCAR race since the Southern 500 in September of 1994.
He was in his first year driving for Ray Evernham’s new team, but the results had been just so-so.
We met up after qualifying at Talladega – Bill, me and his publicist at the time, Kristine Curley, who is now with Jimmie Johnson.
We rode to the Talladega airport and climbed into Bill’s private jet. Although Kristine seemed somewhat unsure about her driver’s piloting skills, we had a smooth, uneventful flight to Blairsville, where Bill had a beater of a van waiting at the small airport.
We stopped by his house to pick up his wife Cindy and some other family members. Bill and Cindy rode in the two seats up front – the only two. The rest of us sat on the floor.
When we arrived at the track, it was clear that it was an altogether new experience for Kristine. She was quite out of place among men with wads of chewing tobacco in their mouths and black, grimy grease in the creases of their hands and under every fingernail.
But Bill was right at home, as he should have been. He moved easily among his fellow mountain-born and bred folks, and he personally knew quite a few of them.
He’d picked a tough night to try out his new dirt Late Model. In the starting field were 21 of the Southeast’s most talented drivers. Up until it came time to qualify, I got the sense from Bill that he was just there to have a little fun and to help out the race promoter, who had allowed him to practice there several times.
He qualified second, but bolted into the lead at the drop of the green flag. The instincts that had led him to 40 Cup wins up that point, had kicked in again. He began to stretch out his lead, putting a straightaway on the second-place driver at times.
But as the laps wound down, it got really interesting. Elliott was hung up in lapped traffic, and local hotshoe David Payne had closed the gap and was waiting for a single mistake on Elliott’s part so he could pounce into the lead.
Even when Elliott had to deal with the lapped car driven by of one of Payne’s relatives, he made all the right moves, and when the checkered flag finally fell, the No. 9 was a winner again.
Afterward, we piled into the old van to make the drive back to Elliott’s home.
But he was a different person. There was a gleam in his eyes that I hadn’t seen in years. He was as excited about the win as if it was his first one ever.
“How did it look?” he asked. “How did I do?”
The same man who had won a Cup championship years before was as happy as a kid on Christmas morning.
Although he had to be ready for Cup practice early the next morning at Talladega, he was as relaxed as could be as Cindy served us a late supper of hamburgers and chips.
Then it was back to the airport for the ride back to Talladega. As we were on the approach to Talladega, the dust cloud from Talladega Short Track had risen high into the night sky. Elliott pointed it out, saying we might have enough time to catch the last few laps. But by the time he’d secured the plane, the dirt track across the road had gone silent.
As we pulled up to the checkpoint at the tunnel into the track, well after midnight, the guard made us both show our NASCAR licenses before he’d let us in.
Once he saw Elliott’s NASCAR license, he apologized for not recognizing him.
But the man couldn’t be blamed. Bill hadn’t won a race anywhere in seven years, and it had been 14 years since he’d won at Talladega.
In fairness to the guard, it wasn’t the same Bill Elliott who left the track hours before that was wanting back in.
Three races later, everyone in NASCAR was talking about Elliott after he won at Homestead Miami Speedway. He did so by passing his then-teammate Casey Atwood with five laps to go.
In the years since, I’ve often asked Elliott about the difference that win on dirt made in him. He tends to downplay it for the most part, but there was no mistaking the look in his eyes and the exhilaration he showed over winning a race at an off-the-beaten-path dirt track.
Darrell Waltrip is right. Go win you a race somewhere, Junior.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments