How Richard Childress Discovered his NASCAR Passion for the Daytona 500

NASCAR Winston Cup team owner Richard Childress stood next to his much-relieved pilot. Together, they celebrated Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s 1998 Daytona 500 victory

A long-awaited commemoration, for sure. 

Since his debut eighth-place finish in 1979, a Daytona 500 title was the one trophy Earnhardt – and his legion of fans – wanted the most. When he finally earned it, Childress stepped aside and handed the moment to “The Intimidator.” 

Except Childress’ journey was longer, his quest to land the big one deeper. 

Richard Childress went winless during his first 23 Daytona 500s

Childress’ first Daytona 500 experience developed when he was a teenage race fan, road-tripping from Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Daytona Beach, Florida.

“Came down with a guy named Wayne Smith,” Childress said, reported by Autoweek. “Of course, it was before any of this looked anywhere like it does now. We stayed in a campground out on Nova Road (near the track) and slept in a tent. Came back a year or two later and slept in a tent again, and then another year slept in a camper in one of the (infield) road-course corners.”

The Daytona 500 became an annual trek. Eight years after his first excursion, Childress returned as a driver. Lacking funds, but not means, Childress found a way to field a car and qualify for the main event.

He suffered engine failure and finished 40th.

It was a short trip.

The first of 23 ventures before finding Victory Lane.

Childress on competing at the Daytona 500: ‘Here, just finishing this race was big’  

NASCAR Winston Cup driver Richard Childress makes laps during action at the 125-mile Daytona 500 Qualifying race on Feb. 13, 1975, at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida | Dozier Mobley/Getty Images

As a Winston Cup competitor, Childress failed to finish on the lead lap during any of his eight Daytona 500s. He retired in 1981. In 285 career starts, Childress collected 76 top-10 finishes.

“I don’t think I ever entered a race that I didn’t think I had a chance to win,” Childress said. “I was thinking, ‘Is today the day all of them are going to have a problem or blow up or something and I can win?’ I always kept that in the back of my mind. I had a couple of really good cars over the years, did well at Darlington and Riverside. But here, just finishing this race was big.”

But as the owner of Richard Childress Racing, he is a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Together, with Earnhardt, they claimed six Winston Cup titles, but they struggled in February at the beach.

Year after year, until 1998.

The celebration was short-lived.

Earnhardt died following a final-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.

Childress: ‘We’ve had some of the biggest ups here and the biggest down when was when we lost Dale in 2001’

Childress’ passion and heartache remain, even after 20 more Daytona 500s.

“We’ve had some of the biggest ups here and the biggest down when was when we lost Dale in 2001,” Childress said. “But I still love this place. It was one of Dale’s favorite race tracks. We had some conversations about retirement, and this track was still in his retirement plan.”

Since 1998, it took another nine years before Childress again visited Victory Lane, this time celebrating with Kevin Harvick. On the 20th anniversary of his first Daytona 500, Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, presented him with a trifecta.

In 2022, 58 years after making the first road trip to Daytona, he returns for the start of Speedweeks on Feb. 15 with Dillon and Tyler Reddick.

Childress’ journeys keep getting deeper and deeper.

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