- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

Legions of motorsports fans lost a hero when Dale Earnhardt died Feb. 18, 2001, at Daytona International Speedway. Richard Childress lost not only his best driver —if not the greatest in Winston Cup history — but also his best friend. Childress says he thinks about the late legend every day.

Now known as one of NASCAR’s most successful team owners, Childress started his racing career on the track, driving a car he owned from 1969 to 1981. And though he loved driving, Childress made the move from the driver’s seat to the owner’s box that year to make way for a young, talented driver who already had one Winston Cup championship on his mantle: Dale Earnhardt.

“I knew he was a champion, and I knew him as a person,” Childress says, looking back. “I felt we could work real close together, real good. That’s the reason I did it.”

His intuition was correct. Though it took a few years, Earnhardt and Childress combined for six more Winston Cup titles and 67 victories before Earnhardt’s death at the beginning of the 2001 season.

That partnership will be on everyone’s mind this evening as Childress gets behind the wheel again — this time in Earnhardt’s recognizable No. 3 Chevrolet. He’ll take the lap along with four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who’ll also start second for the UAS-GM Quality 500 in Charlotte, N.C., as part of NASCAR’s long goodbye to sponsor RJ Reynolds. Nextel takes over for the longtime sponsor next season.

Expect a mix of loud cheers and heavy tears from the crowd, sure to be loaded with fans new and old of the North Carolina native and NASCAR legend.

“He was a special kind of person. He was easy to talk to as a friend or as [a business partner],” Childress says. “He and I had a way of reading each other. Sometimes we wouldn’t have to say a thing, we’d read each other.”

In an interview with The Washington Times, Childress recalled how his partnership with Earnhardt started in the early 1980s, but it’s best to let Childress’s own words describe how the successful relationship began.

“I knew Dale from hunting and other stuff before we hooked up originally at Talladega, the second race [at that track] in 1981. He had a car owner who sold out, and he wasn’t happy with the sellout. I’d let a friend of mine at RJ Reynolds know that I was interested in getting out of the car because I could see all of these new money people coming in at the time, and I was just a small independent. I could see the writing on the wall.

“So Dale and I talked. And that night, there was four of us who met at the Downtowner in Aniston, Ala., and put the deal together for him to run the last 10 races of 1981, and I would get out of the car. And that was the toughest thing I ever had to do, because I had a real good streak, I hadn’t missed a race in 280 or 270 races; to get out of the car was a huge commitment. But I knew the opportunity was there; if Dale and I hooked up and we did well, I could look at getting sponsoring later on. And I knew I couldn’t keep going as a small independent, I’d be out of business.

“We wrecked on pit road at Bristol and finished 11th at Michigan [the first two races together]. But by the end of that year, we were in contention to win two or three races. So I saw that, hey, it could really work. So he had the opportunity to go drive with Harry Ranier, with the 28 car, Bud Moore, or myself.

“So he and I got a six-pack of beer at Darlington and rode back to the hotel and sat there in the car and talked about it. I suggested he go drive for Bud Moore; [Earnhardt] was a championship driver, and although we were running good, I didn’t have the financial means for him to run a Winston Cup champion. So he did that and went and drove for Bud Moore in 1982 and ‘83. We put Ricky Rudd in our car and won our first Winston Cup race as RCR in ‘83, won several poles and two races.

“Dale and I were [still] hunting buddies, and we were going to go to South Carolina and hunt together. We’d sit around and talk about it when we got back or ride around in the truck and talk about how we wanted to get back together some day.

“Wrangler was a big sponsor in the sport at that time. I just felt the combination [was right] in ‘84, I felt we were able to come back, win and race for a championship … The opportunity came about for us to get back together in 1984, and we were able to hook up and he came back and started driving for us.

“And the rest is history, as they say.”

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