All-Star Moments: No. 2 – The Son Lights Up CMS
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
It’s NASCAR All-Star Race week. It’s a week that culminates in a race which, despite the fact – or maybe because of the fact – that it pays no points, has produced some of the Sprint Cup Series’ most memorable moments.
Which All-Star Races are the most memorable? This week, RacinToday.com has been counting down its top five, continuing with today’s No. 2: Senior and Junior.
It was becoming clear in the late 1990s that the great Dale Earnhardt had passed his prime as a Sprint Cup driver. Earnhardt was certainly not ready to retire as the new century arrived but still, people had began to ponder life in NASCAR without him.
Who, many wondered, would replace Earnhardt as the face of the series?
At the 2000 All-Star Race, many people got their answer: Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr.
Junior won the event, lighting up Charlotte Motor Speedway, the crowd and, even, his father.
As Junior stood in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway that May night in 2000, hugging his beaming father, it seemed clear that one era was ending and another was beginning.
And for that reason – and the fact that grown men with tattoos and pickup trucks with gun racks were reduced to blubbering babies by the sight of Senior and Junior hugging in Victory Lane – the 2000 race checks in at No. 2 on the list of 10 best All-Star events.
“It was my favorite victory,” Junior would go on to say.
Earnhardt Jr. was 25 years old that May. He’d won the 1998 and 1999 Busch Series championships. He was in no way The Intimidator Jr., but he was country-hip, charismatic and…marketable. He was winning fans years before he was winning Cup races.
Then, he started winning Cup races. First in Texas in the spring of 2000. Then he won at Richmond a couple weeks before the All-Star Race.
CMS president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler picked Earnhardt Jr. to win the Winston, which the All-Star Race was then called. Earnhardt Sr. balked at that. Too much pressure, he told Wheeler.
But the pressure never got to the son. During the race, Earnhardt Jr. overcame a loose lugnut and then a brush with the outside wall. A good call by him and his young crew chief/cousin that secured the victory.
Two laps into the final segment, a caution flag waved. Junior cooly told crew chief Tony Eury Jr. over the radio if he could pit and take four new tires, he would win the race.
“We decided that the race pays so much to win ($500,000 plus),” Earnhardt Jr. told SPEED, “and you don’t think you got what you need, pit. Come in and make a change. And that’s what we did and that was the way to go.”
Junior started from the back of the pack but on the new tires began knocking down the 10 or so cars in front of him. In one of those cars was his father.
He then tracked down and passed Jerry Nadeau for second place.
With three laps to go, he pointed his Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevy at the rear of leader Dale Jarrett’s Ford, which had blue smoke blowing from its headers.
“I knew once I saw him back there ,there wasn’t any chance of holding him off,” Jarrett told reporters afterward.
Between turns 3 and 4 heading to the white flag, Earnhardt Jr. proved Jarrett correct. He moved passed, took the white flag as the lead and then sprinted home the winner.
“To make such an impact that night,” Earnhardt Jr. said, “to be the first rookie to win it at the time, we were able to pass my dad on the outside to win it, that’s the way we did it, it was real spectacular.”
Victory Lane was insane. There was the tough old Man in Black, shaking hands and hugging and tearing up in his son’s arms. Viewers and participants couldn’t help but join in the emotion.
“I was fortunate to see that smile more than once,” Danny “Chocolate” Myers, Earnhardt’s long-time gas man and friend, said. “But thinking about that night right now, I see that smile right now in my mind. I can see that picture in my mind. It was a cool, cool thing.”
The Earnhardt Jr. story since that night has gone thought a lot of ups and downs. How might that night in 200 be viewed by history? Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway put it in perspective, giving the only possible answer.
“None of us knew at the time that NASCAR was about to change,” Gossage, who was there that night, said. “At that point, Junior seemed almost worthy as the heir apparent to his father. That is why so many Dale and Dale Jr., fans feel so let down today. The potential was not only there, it was being realized. Today, in retrospect, we know that it was an unrealistic standard that was being set. Was it lightning in a bottle or just a sweet spot in time? Who knows.”
That night, nobody cared.
This year’s All-Star Race is scheduled for Saturday night. It will broadcast live on SPEED.One Comment