Before rain swept over the race track, Richard Childress wheeled one of his old stock cars onto Talladega Superspeedway for pace laps, just ahead of the field that would take the green flag for a NASCAR Cup race. And this was not just any of his old stock cars.
The black Chevrolet with the orange trim and tilted No. 3 was the last car that Dale Earnhardt, Childressâs driver, drove to victory at Talladega in October 2000, four months before he was killed in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt posted 10 of his 76 Cup victories at Talladega, and Childress became a legendary owner in part because of Earnhardtâs success at the big and fast track. Childress, now 74, never won a Cup race as a driver, but his cars have won 108 races.
Childress had been keeping Earnhardtâs Monte Carlo at his racing museum in North Carolina. As he explained it, Grant Lynch, an old friend of Childressâs who is retiring as the chairman at the speedway in November, talked Childress into bringing the No. 3 car down for a spin.
So Childressâs crew cleaned it up and made sure the engine still in it would run (which it did). The car was displayed at the track until Childress tugged on an Earnhardt-style open-face helmet and drove the car around the track, racing down the backstretch, apparently as heâd promised.
The fans loved watching the No. 3 car on the track, but that was no surprise. For one thing, The Intimidatorâs car looked so incredibly badass cool â sleek, low and still capable of knocking other cars off the track. Todayâs boxy stock cars look like Little Tikes Cozy Coupes in comparison.
(Gushing over Earnhardtâs car on camera as it passed was the reporter Rutledge Wood, who was wearing, believe it or not, what looked like a flannel shirt with an NBC Sports monogram on it. Where can I git me one of them?)Â Â
It was a weekend of nostalgia at Talladega for Childress, whose grandson, Ty Dillon, drove a Chevy in the Cup race that was made to look like the No. 13 car that Childress drove to a 23rd-place finish and all of $1,175 in his first Cup race, on Sept. 14, 1969 at Talladega.
Childressâs team has faded from prominence in recent years, with only three Cup victories in its last six seasons. He recently dropped one of his drivers, Daniel Hemric, replacing him with Tyler Reddick, a young hotshot who looks like all of the other young hotshots these days. Bubba Wallace or Bubba Pollard would have been more interesting choices, Richard.
When the race was continued a day later, Austin Dillon, Tyâs brother, finished sixth in one of Childressâs cars. Ryan Blaney won the race by .007 seconds, or about one foot, over Ryan Newman, to guarantee himself a berth in the next round of the endless playoffs.
It was a good race, and because it was Columbus Day, more people had the day off than normal to watch the continuation. Talladega appeared to be more full for a fall race than it has been, and a $50 million âtransformationâ of the facilities is being regarded as a big success.
âThey put in $50 million rebuilding this place,â Newman, who had been knocked out of the playoffs, told NBC after the race. âI should have thrown in $50 to move the start-finish line.â That is the kind of money quote that NASCAR really misses these days, in part because most of the drivers are boring kids.
Childress had been back out front a day earlier at Talladega in a 19-year-old old car that stole the show. It is unlikely that Childress will take it out soon for another spin. They can drag out other old cars, and maybe they should, but that brief Sunday drive was just so evocative of how charming and romantic NASCAR used to be.
It may not ever be charming and romantic again, but NASCAR was like that, and donât you forget it.