When Dale Earnhardt Jr. first saw the blue and white No. 3 car with his name on it, he thought it was a joke.
Before the 1997 season, Dale Earnhardt Sr. told his son he’d be running in NASCAR’s Busch Series, now the Xfinity Series, after years racing late model cars in South Carolina. In eight races, Earnhardt Jr. earned one top-10 finish and finished ranked 47th in the series. He didn’t hear from any sponsors after the season.
At 22, Earnhardt Jr. was running out of options.
“I had no idea what to do,” he said.
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Meanwhile, Earnhardt Sr. was looking for someone to replace Steve Park, who transitioned full-time to the Cup Series after 1997. Crew chief Tony Eury Sr. was pushing Earnhardt Sr. to consider his son, Earnhardt Jr. says, but that was unbeknownst to the young driver at the time. He figured he wasn’t a candidate, and he said his career was starting to tail off.
So when Earnhardt Jr. walked into the garage in early January 1998 and saw his name atop the blue No. 3 car with white trim – a paint scheme he’ll replicate on Sept. 3 in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway – he said he started cursing out Eury and his son, Tony Eury Jr., who were both laughing beside the car.
“I honestly thought they were trying to play a prank on me,” he said.
They weren’t. Earnhardt won 13 races and two championships with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., in 1998-99 before making the full-time jump to the Cup Series in 2000. And this weekend, in what will likely be his last race at Darlington, he’ll try to recreate the magic of those two years with the same blue body and white trim.
“It’s a paint scheme – and a part of my career – that I really hold dear,” he said.
Earnhardt revealed the throwback paint scheme for his No. 88 car at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday, just under seven weeks before NASCAR will celebrate the 1985-89 era of racing in the third year of its “throwback” campaign at Darlington. In 1987, Earnhardt Sr. won the Southern 500 for the first time, one of 11 victories in his 1987 championship season. He won the Southern 500 twice more, in 1989 and 1990, and he finished his career with nine victories and 19 top-five finishes in 44 races at Darlington.
Thirty years later, the younger Earnhardt is still looking for his first win at Darlington, which he calls the toughest track he’s raced. He’s winless in 21 races there but has finished in the top-10 on 10 occasions, including a second-place finish in the 2014 Southern 500. But unlike after the 1997 season, his career could really be coming to a close.
Earnhardt, 42, announced in late April that he plans to retire after the season. He said he’ll still finish out his Xfinity contracts through 2018, but he reiterated Tuesday that he doesn’t plan to run any Cup Series races beyond this year. He’ll need a win before season’s end to sneak into the Cup Series playoffs – he’s 21st in the standings – and this could be his last chance to take one at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
“I hope we have as much success at Darlington as we had in this car in 1998-99,” he said.
Maybe a familiar paint scheme will do the trick.
C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJacksonCowart