As Dale Earnhardt Jr. worked his way up through the ranks, he watched his father race against Jeff Gordon for race wins, and championships. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver recalled the first time that he met Gordon while racing a late model.
“I’m nervous as hell just being there, and I think dad and him were riding around the track with an official,” Earnhardt recalled. “If I remember correctly it was Jeff’s rookie year and dad was sort of showing him the track, and they got out of the car about 10, 20 feet away from me just by coincidence and dad walked over and saw me and introduced to Jeff, and told me that Jeff was going to be really good, had a lot of talent, something along those lines.”
Earnhardt had heard of Gordon before, seeing him racing sprint cars on Thursday Night Thunder, along with the build-up and publicity that came with Gordon’s deal with DUPONT and Rick Hendrick.
“I kind of knew everything about him already, but it was interesting for dad to compliment him because dad is such a fierce competitor and didn’t rarely ever compliment any of his drivers that he raced against,” Earnhardt added.
Then came the opportunity for Earnhardt to race against Gordon himself, beginning in the XFINITY Series at Michigan in 1999.
“I was so excited that he was going to run some races,” Earnhardt commented. “I was so excited that he ran that year and was really pumped up when he would come to the racetrack because we ran against Mark Martin all the time, and Mark was very, very hard to beat, but he showed up every week, so you kind of got used to Mark being around and learning from Mark, so I was excited to get out on the track with Jeff.
“We ended up racing together for the win at Michigan, and he led some of the race, I led some of the race, we ended up winning the race, and then we went to Phoenix and raced each other for that win and he ended up winning the race and I was crowned the champion of that particular event.”
Since moving up to the Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt has gotten to race against Gordon over the past 15 seasons, and has been his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports since 2008.
“I was excited to be able to work with Jeff and become his teammate,” Earnhardt reflected. “That was one of the things that I was secretly excited about, to work with him and Jimmie (Johnson). At the particular time, me and Kasey (Kahne) were good friends, so that was going to work out well, but I was excited to learn as much as I could from Jeff and Jimmie. I was excited about the challenge to sort of become one of the guys, and I felt like the new guy or a bit of an outsider for many years at Hendrick Motorsports until we started getting more competitive and doing well.
“But those guys are ‑‑ they know a good race car driver when they see one, and they don’t sugarcoat it, so I was looking forward to that challenge, impressing them and showing them what I could do.”
Last month, Gordon announced that the 2015 season would be his last full-time year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and the announcement has caused Earnhardt to reflect on his career.
“I think it makes me reflect more about my own age than Jeff’s, because you still see Jeff as this guy that could race another 10 years as competitive as he is, so he doesn’t appear to ‑‑ you don’t look at him and go, man, he’s old,” Earnhardt said. “Look at Jeff, man, he’s been here so long. It doesn’t feel like it.”
Now moving forward, Earnhardt says it will be fun to see how Gordon continues to involve himself in the sport, and his position with Hendrick Motorsports moving forward. Gordon has noted that he doesn’t want to enter an ownership role, but has shown interest in being involved in some way.
“I think that he has a lot of interest to continue to be involved, and I’m excited to see how he goes about that, because he’s such a great influence on our performance now, how can he be that outside the seat, so that’ll be exciting to watch unfold,” Earnhardt commented.