What do you remember about that month-long period between the end of the 2001 Daytona 500 and your first career NASCAR Cup Series win at Atlanta?
“I watched the Daytona 500 just like everybody else and, when I looked at that accident, I don’t think anything about it. But then, being part of the RCR team at that particular point, the phone started ringing, everybody started to gather and really try to figure out what was going on. Then it turned into knowing the news and it was, ‘What do we do next? Where do we go from here?’ Obviously, it changed our sport forever. It changed my life forever and the direction of it, for sure, as to the things that I was going to do in the next couple of days. I think as you look back at that, there were so many emotions that were running through, not only myself, but everybody who was part of the RCR organization and the sport in general. It was obviously an awkward time.”
Are there any specific moments from that first win at Atlanta that have stuck with you?
“There are a few things that I vividly remember about everything that happened on that particular day. The first thing I remember was there were five of us racing there at the end, and then it kind of dwindled down. I remember some random things. I think as I look back at that race, I kind of caught myself wandering with a couple laps to go because it was hard not to notice the people hanging on the fence on the back straightaway. I mean, they were right next to the fence on the back straightaway. I remember how loud the crowd was after I did my burnout and driving around the racetrack backwards. The rest of it is a little bit confusing as to what you remember, what you don’t remember. It was obviously a moment I don’t think any of us expected, but there are a number of things that obviously changed in the weeks before that and continued to change. Atlanta was supposed to be my first race in the Cup Series with America Online as our sponsor with my Busch Series team, at the time, going up together. Obviously, everything changed on that side after the Daytona 500. It took me a long time to really get comfortable to really even think about things that happened that day. There were so many things that happened backwards in my career. I look at my very first Cup Series press conference and that’ll be the biggest press conference with the most notoriety or anything that ever comes from a moment like that. Your first experience will always be your biggest one, at least from my standpoint, so then you look at the first win and you’ll probably never receive that type of notoriety.”
When Richard Childress needed to figure out what was next after Earnhardt’s passing, it was ultimately decided that you would take over his Cup car while also running fulltime in the Xfinity Series. Was that a request, a suggestion or a declaration from Childress to you?
“It was actually a request from us to him. I don’t think anybody ever really considered running two schedules like that. For us, we were young and dumb. We never talked about that the first part of the year. It was just assumed we were going to go back and forth until we got to the races that were in conflict or in a different area. So when that happened, we went in and asked that we at least try to run both series until we got to a point where it was impossible, or a point where it didn’t matter. We did that and, obviously, it mattered all the way through the year with both cars running well and racing for the championship in both series. We used Mike Skinner’s plane a lot. We used Richard’s plane a lot. We used whatever was available to get from point-A to point-B and then get back. There were a lot of late nights and it kind of started a new trend as we went through the 2000s.”
Was there ever a race weekend where the Cup Series was in one location and the Xfinity Series was in another where the logistics of making it back-and-forth between the two venues were concerning?
“At that particular point, it was about, ‘What’s the priority?’ and some of those racetracks we went to, you could test a lot more than what you could today. I remember going to Memphis to practice and we never ended up practicing because it was 9/11 and, of course, everything shut down that day, and for good reason. I remember going to Kentucky and I got there and they crashed my primary car and we weren’t eligible for one of the provisionals at that particular time. We pulled the backup car out and qualified, I think, 11th and I got out of the car and said, ‘This is going to be fine. We’re going to punish them.’ The Punisher was that particular car, and I actually still have that car. But that was one example where we just found a way to make it work, and that’s what we did all year long.”
What was the highlight of that 2001 season? Winning two NASCAR Cup Series races and rookie of the year, or winning the Xfinity Series championship in a runaway?
“That’s a tough one. Looking back on it now, you realize the importance of getting in the Cup car. Atlanta was supposed to be my first race with America Online in the No. 30 car, and then we wound up winning my first race at Atlanta in the 29 car after Dale’s death. So, I think the significance and the importance of keeping that car on the racetrack and keeping RCR afloat with that car on the racetrack and winning that race early at Atlanta – knowing now what it meant to the sport, and just that moment in general of being able to carry on, was so important. But it would be unfair to say it was more significant than racing with the group of guys I was intended to race with and winning the championship and fulfilling that obligation, even though we took on a full Cup season instead of the seven races that I was supposed to do with those guys. They both had significant importance to everything we did.”
Did you ever reach a point in 2001 where going back-and-forth between the two series seemed too much?
“Honestly, racing that much really hid me from a lot of things because of the fact I was so busy. I did all the testing, I did all the racing in both cars, and it really allowed me to kind of hide under a rock. It really didn’t allow me to have a significant relationship with the Cup team. Todd Berrier was still kind of the mediator between myself and Kevin Hamlin because he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and I never got to know him well because there was a huge generation gap that was there. Nobody really got to worry about where you should be or where you shouldn’t be because it was just, ‘I’m going to practice today, I’m racing here today, I’ve got to do this today.’ But 2002 was when I realized the magnitude of the situation we were in. Racing so much and often in 2001 really covered all that stuff up.”
It’s been 20 years since Dale Earnhardt’s passing, yet he remains a huge influence in the sport. Why?
“Between Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, those are two guys who have had the biggest impact on the sport. Their legacies will live on in the sport forever, above everybody else’s, just because of the impact they each had in changing the sport, and not just by winning races. Their legacies are a little bit different from a lot of guys just because they changed the way things happened. You look at the No. 3 car, you look at Dale’s personality, you look at the marketing, you look at the souvenirs and the way that he approached those things and the way he gathered people in our sport to not only help himself, but to help everybody. It changed the way that so many things in our sport worked.”