By Bobby Markos
In 370 episodes of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and co-host Mike Davis have sat down with a sterling assortment of guests, ranging from fellow race drivers, to crew chiefs, to athletes and musicians. Many of the visitors have had intertwining pasts, which has provided long-time Download listeners with multiple perspectives on a singular subject. In an effort to compile these viewpoints into storytelling arrangements, the Dirty Mo crew has begun the exhaustive task of cataloging the past episodes and organizing the hours upon hours of audio by topic. The result will be compiled segments that tell a whole version of a story, and there is no better place to start than with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Over the years, the Download has hosted many of the key figures of the company and unpacked its remarkable narrative. On this week’s episode of the Download, we cover the rising years of DEI, as told by characters who lived it.
Dale Earnhardt Incorporated’s history stems back to 1984, when Dale Earnhardt Sr. began fielding a number-8 car in the now-Xfinity Series for occasional starts. The car would change to number-3 in 1989 and host a handful of drivers before Jeff Green became its first, full-time chauffeur during the 1995 season. After two points runs, Green would be replaced by NASCAR modified-stand out Steve Park. In the episode, Park explains that he actually lived in
Dale Sr.’s spare room for a time when he first moved from New York to North Carolina. No stranger to hard work, Park stationed himself in the race shop with the DEI crew, helping to build the cars and prepare for race weekends.
Park and Dale Jr. recount the building of one of the most successful cars in the DEI stable, the fabled “redheaded stepchild”, which was a short track chassis assembled by Park himself in 1997. Park, being an accomplished short track modified racer, convinced DEI to let him build the car due to his extensive experience on half-mile ovals. Dale Sr. jokingly told the DEI crew to paint chassis red, so he would be able to identify it when it was “running at the back of the pack”. Much to everyone’s surprise, the car was a success, and Park scored his first career Xfinity win at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. He would finish the season with additional victories at Michigan International and Richmond Raceway, as well as Rookie of the Year honors.
Meanwhile, another star was beginning to make his ascent into the DEI ranks, none other than Dale Jr. himself. After making his Xfinity series debut at Myrtle Beach Speedway on June 22nd, 1996 in the number-31 DEI vessel, he would make a handful of attempts during the 1997 calendar before a bad crash during a practice session destroyed the car. Dale Jr. and former
Executive Vice-President of DEI Ty Norris recounted the aftermath of the event, where Jr. had retreated back to his home to drink away his sorrows with some friends. Unbeknownst to him, the DEI crew had brought the mangled machine back to the shop and began a lengthy repair process. Norris recalled riding up to the house with Dale Sr. to check-in, and how he became enraged when he discovered that Jr was relaxing instead of helping with the rebuild. The exchange led to a confrontation that was a major breakthrough in the father-son relationship, a conversation that Dale Jr. described as the first time they “truly spoke” and heard one another.
In addition to the budding Xfinity team at the time, DEI also saw success in the Trucks ranks, where they tabbed NASCAR Southwest veteran Ron Hornaday to take on driving duties. The partnership was immediately fruitful, taking the new series by storm with six victories during the inaugural season of competition. Hornaday, who had won back to back Southwest
Championships in 1992 and 93, was told to be expecting a call from Dale Sr. by NASCAR legend Benny Parsons. He recalled almost not taking the call due to a long running prank a friend had pulled where he pretended to be Richard Petty. Once connecting, Dale Sr. hired him and told him to pack his bags for North Carolina the following day. Hornaday and Dale Jr. reminisced about what life was like in the DEI shop those days, and Dale Jr. accredits a lot of his success in the late model ranks to things he observed from work being done on Hornaday’s truck ride.
With an all-star line-up in place, DEI decided to shake up its roster for the 1998 season while taking on a new frontier, the NASCAR Cup Series. While sporadic attempts had been made through 1996 and 97, the 98 calendar year would see Steve Park go-full time Cup racing in a newly numbered “1” Chevy. Park recalled having phone conversations with Dale Sr. about the move and whether he thought they were ready. While they both realized they weren’t quite at a top level yet, Dale Sr. believed in his ability to develop a team that could win races.
The move sent Dale Jr. to the number-3 Xfinity ride on a full-time basis, where he took the racing world by storm, capturing 13 victories and two championships over his first two seasons. During a Download episode with the late Danny Earnhardt Sr., he revealed a conversation with Dale Sr. about Jr’s driving ability, after observing him in his series debut at Myrtle Beach. While Dale Sr. insisted that it was hard to tell a driver’s ability from one race, Danny insisted that “the boy could drive a race car,' and played a role influencing the roster adjustments.
The success in the Xfinity division propelled Dale Jr.’s career, and in 2000 DEI expanded to two full-time Cup rides, with the incorporation of the number-8 Budweiser Chevy. At the 7th event on the calendar, Dale Jr. brought DEI their first Cup victory on April 2nd at Texas Motor Speedway. He would return to victory lane just four races later at Richmond. Park would also get in on the glory, scoring his first career Cup win at Watkins Glen in front of a hometown crowd on August 13th. Filling Dale Jr.’s ride in the Xfinity series was Hornaday, who made the jump with NAPA Auto Parts into the number-3, delivering victories at Nazareth Raceway and Indianapolis Raceway Park.
But the success at the highest level in stock car racing had Dale Sr. thinking, and he was ready to make his mark permanently in the Cup series. He had his eye on friend Michael Waltrip, whom he always respected for paving his own path in racing despite his brother
Darrell’s success. Michael was racing on a year to year basis with Jim Smith, and was unsure of his plans for the 2001 season. When Dale Sr. asked him if he had anything in the works, he explained that he had a standing offer with Smith, to which Sr. responded, “hang on, I’m working on something.” Upon taking a meeting with NAPA in Atlanta, the decision was made to expand to a three car garage in the Cup ranks for the 2001 series, with Waltrip behind the wheel.
The monumental deal would also bring the closure of DEI’s Xfinity program, which unfortunately would leave Hornaday to “consider his options”. Hornaday recollected a meeting with Norris where he expected to sign a contract extension, but was instead delivered the devastating news. Although initially angry, he would calm down and make amends with Dale Sr., who would help him find a ride with AJ Foyt Racing.
And so the stage was set: the 2001 NASCAR Cup season would see DEI embark with a three ship armada, turning heads throughout the racing world. This episode concludes at the first race of that schedule, the 43rd running of the Daytona 500, a day that would change DEI, auto racing and the world forever. Listeners can hear all of these stories and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.