A memory that has stuck with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 25 years is inspiring the retired NASCAR star to make a promise that he cannot keep without a key change to the racing schedule. If it happens, the big winner would be a track that hasn’t hosted a NASCAR race since 2000.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. would drop everything to race in Nashville
Earnhardt hasn’t raced full-time since the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series season, but he does compete annually in the Xfinity Series. His 2020 appearance will be Sept. 11 at Richmond Speedway.
Earnhardt, 46, has not set a date for leaving racing entirely. However, he has revealed where he will make the remainder of his annual appearances – if the pieces come together. He declared Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway an all-time favorite venue and the place he wants to race.
“If they run Xfinity Series here, I’ll be here,” Earnhardt said, according to the Tennessean. “I run once a year. I’ll probably do that as long as I can and there should be a few more years of that. Hopefully, we can get the Xfinity here soon; the next couple of years because I’d love to come out here and compete.”
The historic track has hosted racing since 1915. It’s one that Earnhardt loved while coming up through the racing ranks. He made his debut in 1996 and last appeared there in 1999 in a Busch Grand National race in the precursor to the Xfinity Series.
“It was an eight-hour drive with our gooseneck (trailer),” Earnhardt said. “We were typically racing Friday nights in Florence, South Carolina, and Saturday nights in Myrtle Beach. Any off weekend we knew exactly where we were going and that was to Nashville. … It was a big track, much different than anything we had farther east.”
The city is making a new NASCAR push
The NASCAR Cup Series left Nashville in 1984, and the organization’s other two series exited in 2000. However, the community remains a hot spot for fan interest, with AutoWeek.com reporting Nashville is a top-five television market for NASCAR.
Nashville mayor John Cooper and officials of Bristol Motor Speedway negotiated a deal in March 2021 that could bring the Xfinity Series to the fairgrounds by 2023 after a proposed $50 million renovation. Bristol would operate Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, which currently conducts 10 race weekends each year.
Bristol is on the schedule for annual Cup Series races in the spring and fall. The truck series was part of the race weekend this past March, and the September weekend will include all three major NASCAR series.
It’s not clear whether bringing the Xfinity Series to Nashville would cost Bristol one of its slots or if some other track that currently hosts would be affected.
Nashville hosted one of Dale Earnhart Jr.’s oddest races ever
Earnhardt’s association with Chevrolet goes back to his NASCAR start with his father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc. But there was a day when he had to choose between driving a Ford or just watching at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
Still driving in Late Model races in 1996, Earnhardt put on a dominating show in practice before wrecking the car while making one more run. NASCAR veteran Bobby Hamilton offered an extra car of his to Earnhardt. However, there was a catch: It was a Ford.
“I’m thinking, ‘I can’t drive it because it’s a Ford.’ But I want to race real bad,” Earnhardt said. “So, I’m calling my dad, trying to see if I can get a hold of him and try to ask him if I can drive this Ford. It’s a Petty blue because Bobby, at the time, I think must have been driving for Richard in the Cup Series, and it had No. 43 on it.
“I couldn’t get a hold of dad, but I got a hold of dad’s general manager. … He said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and drive it. Just don’t talk about it and try not to make too big of a deal about it.’”
In a storybook ending, Earnhardt would have won. He nearly pulled it off, too, lapping nearly the entire field 150 laps into the race before the transmission blew.
Earnhardt went home without the win, and Hamilton went home without the car. Someone appreciating the novelty of a Richard Petty car driven by the son of another of the greatest drivers ever bought the Ford as it sat on pit road after the race.