Earnhardt’s Right-Hand Man Looks Back On THE 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 12 2023

Dale Earnhardt and his team celebrate winning the Daytona 500 25 years ago this month. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

J.R. Rhodes was a fixture alongside Dale Earnhardt beginning with the running of The Winston in Charlotte in May 1994 through the legendary driver’s final race when he lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
The longtime Public Relations representative for the driver of the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, Rhodes had an up-close view of many of the moments that defined Earnhardt’s career.
He was there when Earnhardt clinched his seventh NASCAR Cup championship in 1994, won the Brickyard 400 at Indy in 1995 and, three weeks later at Bristol, was the recipient of a water bottle tossed by an angry Rusty Wallace, suffered second-degree burns to his face in a fiery crash at Talladega in 1998, rattled Terry Labonte’s cage at Thunder Valley in 1999, edged Bobby Labonte in a photo finish at the 2000 spring race in Atlanta then surged from 18th to first in the fall event at  Talladega that season during the closing laps to capture what would turn out to be the final victory of his legendary NASCAR career.
And Rhodes was present when Earnhardt flashed across the start-finish line in the 1998 Daytona 500 to record what is still arguably the most popular victory in the 75-year history of the sport. Sunday’s Daytona 500 will mark the silver anniversary of Earnhardt’s landmark win in the Great American Race.

Rhodes currently resides in the Charlotte area and is a Business Development Specialist and Chief Marketing Officer.

Dale Earnhardt sits in his office. (Photo by Nigel Kinrade)

Below is a recap of the 1998 Daytona 500 as seen through the eyes of Earnhardt’s right-hand man:

Q: “Do you recall anything unique or out of the ordinary that occurred on race morning?”
A: “I wouldn’t say there was anything different that morning. The vibe was positive because we had just come off a Twin 125 win. Dale felt confident for a month going into the race. It was race day morning and there’s a special vibe no matter what with it being the Daytona 500. So, it was what it was expected to be.”
Q: “Did you sense prior to the race that Dale was feeling pressure to win the Daytona 500 after coming up empty 19 times?”
A: “No, Dale never really showed that. He was very confident going in. I’ll tell you what really put him over the top and him saying ‘we can really do this’ was because John Elway had just won the Super Bowl with Denver and he used that reference from the day (Elway) won the Super Bowl to the day he won the 500. He said ‘if John Elway won, we can do this and I feel positive.’ The biggest reason he wanted to win was to stop getting asked the question about winning the Daytona 500. That was the biggest reason. If he wins that race, he never has to answer that question again. There was anticipation to win just because of that.”
Q: “Dale had a fast car, led a lot of laps and got out front on the money stop under caution with 25 laps to go. What do you recall seeing or hearing on that restart with the No. 3 car in the lead as you and looked at the faces of the Richard Childress, Larry McReynolds, Chocolate Myers and the guys on the crew?”
A: “I remember Richard coming on the radio and saying ‘it ain’t over until it’s over.’ No one that had been with that team more than two years felt any type of excitement or anticipation until we crossed the (finish) line. We had been there so many times with the best car, we had won the Busch race, won the 125, we had won the IROC. We were winning, winning, winning. None of us really had the anticipation we’ve got this in the bag because we had lost it so many times.”
Q: “What do you recall occurring once you knew Dale had won the Daytona 500?”
A: “That’s when I went to work. It was my job to go to work when you win a race. It’s bad luck to bring any of your victory lane items to the pit. When he crossed the line (on lap 199 of 200) and the caution waved, I was literally there for only 30 seconds. Everybody was jumping for joy and I started doing a sprint to the trailer. I grabbed the bag (of hats) and got back onto pit road and saw what was going on, with all of the people lined up (to congratulate Dale) and that gave me some extra time. My job at that point was to get to victory lane, make sure the clients and customers get to victory lane and make sure I’m there when he pulls the car in and he is wearing the right stuff. I always kept the sunglasses. When he got out of the car, I handed him the sunglasses and I had the hat. So I was there for that. I’m busy. I’m thinking 1,000 different things. And then I thought, ‘hell, we’re not going home tonight. We’re going to be at Daytona USA at 7 o’clock. And then we’re going to New York (for the Letterman Show) and then we’re going to L.A. (for the Leno Show). In that five minutes, a whole bunch was running through my head. Who’s going to take this? Who’s going to take the rental car back? How are we going to get this done? Then we had the Wessa Miller stuff, the little girl with the (lucky) penny and how are we going to get her in victory lane? It was just crazy.”
Q: “The crew members lining up on pit road to congratulate Dale actually gave you more time to prep for victory lane. But that remains one of the most iconic moments in the sport. I can still hear Mike Joy of CBS saying ‘every many on every team is out on pit road to congratulate Earnhardt.’ When you reflect at how Dale’s competition reacted that afternoon, what does that mean to you?”
A: “Respect. Capital RESPECT. That man earned everything. He was the greatest guy out there. He was also one of the nicest guys out there, but many people didn’t know that because he was putting on the face of, you know, the Intimidator. But anybody in the garage area knew he’d be the first to come pinch you on the neck or put his arm around you and tell you ‘sorry about this last week’ or something like that. The level of appreciation and respect (shown that day) I think raised the bar to another level. You don’t see that. Even the officials, were just so friggin’ happy to see him win that race that day. And the thing a lot of people don’t know is he’d get on the radio and say ‘Captain Jack, I’m going to tear up your grass.’ And he was told ‘go for it.’ Captain Jack was Bill France Jr. They had talked over the weekend at some point, and Bill France Jr. had told him ‘don’t tear up my grass.’ And Dale had remembered that. What people don’t know is Bill Jr. used to always monitor our radio and had a talking channel so he could talk to us.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. had one incredible weekend 25 years ago this month. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Q: “And Bill France Jr. came to victory lane that afternoon to congratulate Dale, correct?”

A: “Yes, it was one of the few times he ever did. He didn’t come down to present anything. He actually went up on the side grandstand area and was about six rows up and he was just sitting there taking it all in. I was thinking ‘that’s respect right there.’ (Dale and Bill Jr.) were really good friends.”
Q: “Once the interview obligations were complete and the fans had filed out, what happened at that point with you, Dale and Richard?”
A: “I remember just watching the looks on Dale and Richard’s faces. They had both come from nothing and it was something they had worked hard for over such a long time. I have a visual in my mind of Dale doing an interview while riding on the back of my buddy’s police motorcycle with a glass of champagne in one hand and a cigar in the other and Richard just being ecstatic. Afterwards, a small group of us went over to Dale’s boat Sunday Money. I believe there were six of us. We shared a bottle of champagne and, because it was going to be an early morning, it wasn’t a late night.”
Q: “Dale always had the reputation of being the first to get out of the racetrack.”
A: (Laughs) “Oh yes, he did.”
Q: “But I guess in the case of winning the Daytona 500, this was an exception to simply hang around and savor the moment.”
A: “We were in no hurry. And we told Richard ‘we’re going to leave this race car here (at Daytona USA), so go build us another one.’ Dale was in no hurry to get home whatsoever. We went to New York and then L.A. to do some shows. And that’s when they filmed the scene for the movie he was in called BASEketball.”

Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt won the biggie in 1998. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Q: “Was Dale still on cloud nine when he went on Letterman and Leno’s shows that week?”

A: “He was jacked up for a month over winning that race. We did all of our obligations on the NASCAR plane going back and forth. He was finally ready to get home and we go back on Wednesday evening. And when we got home, folks from DEI had lined up bags of candles in the driveway and when he opened the garage door, there were about 200 folks there to congratulate him. It was just a really cool experience.”
Q: “How would you measure the way he cherished winning the 1994 Cup championship compared to the 1998 Daytona 500?”
A: “I think winning the 500 was a bigger challenge because he had tried so much and was never able to do it. He never really had a struggle winning championships, believe it or not. It was right out of the box when he won his first championship (in 1980). You can say I’m a NASCAR champion or I’m a Daytona 500 champion. Honestly, more people get it when you say you’re a Daytona 500 champion. I would say they are both pretty high up there. But the day he finally won the Daytona 500 was pretty much the highlight. It was very meaningful and something he was glad he could put on his list of accomplishments.”
Q: “You witnessed so many of Dale’s finest moments.”

A: “Yes. I was so very fortunate to be in that position and just enjoyed the hell out of it.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 12 2023
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