DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It’s hard to imagine anybody would have blamed Richard Childress for just walking away, vowing never to set foot at another racetrack after losing his star driver and close friend, Dale Earnhardt.
And for a few days after Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500 a decade ago, that was Childress’ plan.
“Probably all the way up until Tuesday,” Childress said recently. “Sunday night, definitely. My wife and I talked about it. Monday I talked about it. I thought about a lot of things.”
The Tuesday after the accident, Childress was sitting by himself on the dock at then-NASCAR boss Bill France Jr.’s house. He thought back to a hunting trip he and Earnhardt once went on in New Mexico, when Earnhardt’s horse slipped on ice in the mountains and pushed them dangerously close to what could have been a fatal fall. That night, each man agreed to go on racing if the other died.
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Painful as it might have been, Childress kept his promise.
After a series of uneven performances in the decade since Earnhardt’s death, Richard Childress Racing has reclaimed its place as one of the strongest in NASCAR. RCR driver Kevin Harvick came close to knocking Jimmie Johnson off his championship perch last year, and is one of the favorites to do it this season.
That won’t make this week’s 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s death any easier for Childress.
“I try to block that day out,” Childress said. “When I go to Daytona, I always take a look over in Turn 4. We also lost Neil Bonnett over there, which was a couple hundred feet away from there. I think about that every time I pull in there.”
Jeff Burton, who drives Childress’ No. 31 car, knows how tough this year’s Daytona speedweeks are for his boss.
“I think that it’s hard for Richard -- it’s really hard for Richard,” Burton said. “He really doesn’t want to talk about it. He feels obligated to talk about it for obvious reasons. For Richard it means a great deal, so that means that it means a great deal for us.”
Burton said the relationship between Childress and Earnhardt went well beyond the typical bond between a team owner and a driver.
“They supported each other through good and bad,” Burton said. “We tend to glamorize. They had a lot of bad times, too. Richard tells a story of him saying, ‘Look, man, I can’t put you in the kind of cars you need in right now, you need to go drive somewhere else.’ Dale is saying, ‘No, I drive for you. We’re going to work it out. I’m your driver.’ He has so many stories of Dale doing things to make the company better. They respected each other.”
Although Harvick had an impressive 2001 season under difficult circumstances replacing Earnhardt, Childress’ team lost its way and wasn’t a consistent contender.
“There were definitely some times after that that RCR went the wrong way,” Burton said. “I think they really missed Dale’s leadership. They really missed some direction. They really missed Dale standing on the table and saying, ‘Damn it, boys, we need to do this.”’
Beyond that, the sport was passing them by. Childress eventually saw the need to take on investors and spend what it took to adopt the technology that was driving other teams.
“It had to change,” Burton said. “Richard Childress Racing had to become something it wasn’t in order to be successful. It’s the thing that as you get older becomes harder to do. But Richard has adjusted. He’s determined for that company to be part of NASCAR in a big way forever. For him, it’s a legacy. It’s not about just being successful today, it’s about being successful 20 years from now.”
Childress driver Clint Bowyer says his boss is as enthusiastic and involved as ever going into the season.
“I want somebody to bring that championship home,” Bowyer said. “Obviously I want it to be me. But he deserves another championship. He’s put his time in. He’s saved a lot of jobs when he could have closed the doors, sold the place, got out of the place altogether.”
Things might have been different if not for the conversation Childress had with Earnhardt on their hunting trip years ago.
“I told him. ‘You know, if I’d been killed on that mountain today, you would have had to race Phoenix,”’ Childress said, referring to an upcoming race that year. “We looked at each other and he said, ‘If it ever happens to me, you better race.’ That helped make it a lot easier.”