Gordon Honors Earnhardt

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ROCKINGHAM, N.C. – Jeff Gordon wouldn’t have classified himself as the “best of pals” with Dale Earnhardt. He would never have gone on an outdoors excursion with the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, or taken a family vacation with him.

But that doesn’t mean Gordon didn’t consider Earnhardt a very good friend. And Earnhardt’s death during last Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway has affected Gordon personally just as much as any of his fellow drivers, with the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We weren’t great fishing buddies or anything, but he was somebody that I respected greatly and I learned a lot from him – more than he ever imagined,” said Gordon, who won the pole Saturday morning for Sunday’s Dura-Lube 400 at North Carolina Speedway. “And that’s probably the case even more so off the race track than on.

“It’s not like we would ever hang out or anything, because he and I have two different and distinct personalities. But he’s the type of guy who would do just about anything for you. There was definitely something missing when we got here to the garage this morning.”

Gordon dedicated his pole Saturday morning to Earnhardt’s memory, and wore a black No. 3 hat into the North Carolina Speedway media center for his pole-winning press conference.

Earnhardt, like many others, was Gordon’s racing hero.

“When I was a kid growing up, Steve Kinser was the guy I looked up to because he was the type of driver I wanted to be,” said Gordon, who was a former open-wheel standout like Kinser has been throughout his career. “As I got into stock cars and into NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt became that hero.

“You always knew how great a driver Dale was, but you never knew he was such a great person, too. When you came in contact with him, whether it be in the garage area or outside the track, you could tell that instantly. He was absolutely my hero, and any driver would have told you he was their hero, not just on the track but in so many different ways.”

Gordon’s fondest memory of Earnhardt didn’t exactly come in a typical setting. It was during Gordon’s first ever race in the International Race of Champions series at Daytona in 1995, when Gordon discovered just how much the nickname “The Intimidator” suited Earnhardt.

“At that time, I didn’t really know what I was doing as far as IROC competition was concerned, but he certainly did,” Gordon said. “I got side-by-side with Ken Schrader coming onto the back straightaway, and Dale was behind me and I thought he was going to push me, but of course he took me three-wide.

“All three of us were just right in a line heading down the back straightaway. For some reason, I decided to look over and there was Schrader, just looking straight ahead, very focused. He was not going to lift. And then I looked to the left and there was Dale, just beaming and smiling, looking over at me. He was having a ball out there. That’s the way he was.

“He was so comfortable in his environment. I also knew he wasn’t going to lift and that I was going to have to be the one to lift, and sure enough, I did. It was unbelievable to me that the guy who had never run IROC and who had only been in Winston Cup maybe a couple of years had to be the bigger man to lift off the gas. I guess that’s because I knew what I was up against. I’ll never forget that.”

Nor will Gordon ever forget another moment in 1995, when, during the Winston Cup post-season awards banquet to celebrate Gordon’s first championship, Earnhardt and Gordon toasted each other with a glass of milk.

There was an underlying message to the toast, however. Earlier that season, Earnhardt had made a wise-crack at Gordon, saying if he won the championship they would have to toast him with milk instead of champagne, due to Gordon’s age.

Gordon was 24 years old at the time, but the remark stuck with him. Earnhardt wound up finishing second in the points to Gordon that season.

“It was a joke, but Dale was a guy that was very intense and very dedicated,” Gordon said. “He was also a guy that would razz you and have fun, and he was ‘The Intimidator,’ no doubt. He lived up to that name.

“Whether he was on the track or off, playing that game of ‘What is it going to take to win the championship?’ he pulled every trick out of the bag to try and intimidate you and get your mind off of the business at hand. But he was also being Earnhardt and having fun with it.

“When it was all said and done, we were able to toast one another. Most of it was me being able to toast him of how much I respected him and what an honor it was for me to battle him for the championship and come out on top.”

Many perceived Earnhardt as a leader in the garage area. At the age of 29, Gordon is a three-time Winston Cup champion and could be looked upon to take such a role, but he said he didn’t see himself stepping into that position of responsibility.

“I can promise you I’m not going to try to fill his shoes,” Gordon said. “This sport can go on and continue to be very successful. Dale didn’t know it was his position to be the person everybody looked to for answers.”

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