Ten years ago, the spring race at Richmond International Raceway featured one of the most infamous moments of NASCAR’s Chase Era.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his first year at Hendrick Motorsports, he appeared to be in position to end a two-year winless drought. But as he raced Kyle Busch with three laps to go and the crowd of 112,000 on its feet, contact between the two drivers sent Earnhardt spinning. He went on to finish 15th, while Clint Bowyer won and Busch finished second.
As the 10-year anniversary approaches, the key figures from that night agreed to speak with JeffGluck.com for a look back at one of the time’s most notable incidents.
ORIGIN OF AWKWARDNESS
In April 2007, Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Busch got in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway, but left the track prematurely. It turned out his No. 5 team repaired the car and had a chance to gain one more position in the race, so jackman Rick Pigeon found Dale Earnhardt Jr. — whose No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. car had gotten crashed — and asked him to finish the race. Earnhardt agreed to do so without a second thought.
In May, Earnhardt announced he would be leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. for a team to be determined. That team turned out to be Hendrick Motorsports. During the announcement of Earnhardt’s arrival in June, Hendrick also revealed Busch would be released.
KYLE BUSCH: Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up as a fan, Jeff Gordon was my No. 1 guy. But I was a fan of the sport in general. When Dale Jr. won the two Xfinity championships (in 1998 and 1999), I was definitely a fan of his. When he got to Cup, I thought it was cool to see Dale Sr.’s son in Cup. So when I got to the sport and I was a rookie, I wanted to be buddies with Junior. I’m not saying I wanted to be in the Dirty Mo Posse (Earnhardt’s group of longtime friends), but I figured that would be a good place to be. It never really materialized.
MIKE DAVIS (then the communications director for JR Motorsports): I remember Kyle hanging out with us in Dale’s hotel suite in New York (in 2005 or 2006), and they had a mutual respect and a friendship. They liked each other. But just in this two- or three-month span in 2007, all these things happened at once. Almost by coincidence, there were things that were pitting Kyle and Dale against each other, and neither one of them had hoped or planned for that.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Kyle had felt like I moved him out of HMS, like Rick (Hendrick) saw an opportunity to get me and replace him. But what Kyle doesn’t know was I had told Rick behind closed doors I would probably keep Kyle and not keep Casey Mears (who was driving Hendrick’s No. 25 car). Personally, I didn’t fight that fight — but it wasn’t me coming in to replace Kyle. I was coming in there and then Kyle was the one they decided to get rid of. They had every opportunity to get rid of Mears if they wanted to. That’s what I would have done. Kyle is definitely more talented, and it’s obvious now that would have been the smart move of the two guys. But that’s not what Rick decided to do.
BUSCH: I had no idea about that, but I believe him. I know who got me out. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie (Johnson) and Mears, they were always BFF and buddy-buddy. Jeff and Jimmie wanted to see Mears continue and see if he got better. I had a sit-down conversation for about an hour and a half with Jeff Gordon one day in his office at Hendrick. He was asking me all about, “Do you want to be here? What’s it like for you?” I was straight-up truthful with him and maybe said some things that didn’t resonate well with him, and I think he went and told upper management about them. And they were like, “OK, never mind. We don’t need him.” I think that played into the decision of me being released. I think (then-sponsor) Kellogg’s also played into the decision — they didn’t want to deal with me anymore.
JEFF DICKERSON (then the agent and spotter for Busch): We were trying to keep Kyle in the ride. He wanted to stay at Hendrick. It wasn’t meant to be. There were just a lot of different layers, and it sucked for him. When do you see one of the greatest young drivers ever get moved out? Casey Mears is the one who stayed there, but this was always going to be about Kyle and Dale.
The team change wasn’t the only factor that played into the sensitivity between the two drivers heading into 2008. They also had a pair of run-ins on the track.
BUSCH: The fall Kansas race in 2007, I was third in points going into the race and I was running third at the time. Dale got a run off the top and I was on the bottom. On the backstretch, he pulled up behind me and hit me right straight in the bumper and sent me for a ride and basically took us out of the championship hunt for the rest of the year.
EARNHARDT: I did run over him a couple times when he was in the 5 car. I ran over him off of Turn 2 at Kansas. And then we had another misunderstanding and disagreement at Homestead in the very last race of the year.
BUSCH: At Homestead, he slid off the access road you had to use to come to pit road back then. I had no idea he was still out there, and he came back down and slammed right into us. So I probably lost a total of four spots in the point standings in the last 10 races because of the 8 car. So that was frustrating.
EARNHARDT: By the time the next season came around, we just didn’t really get along, and there was a lot of tension that year between me and Kyle. We didn’t speak, but I just felt like it was really uncomfortable.
DAVIS: To be honest with you, because of everything that happened, it just was like a time bomb leading into Richmond.
SATURDAY NIGHT UNDER THE LIGHTS
If you don’t remember anything else about the Richmond race that night, it’s because it wasn’t memorable. Denny Hamlin led 381 of the first 382 laps, with only AJ Allmendinger’s pit strategy preventing the No. 11 car from leading the entire race. But then Hamlin started to have a tire go down, and he stopped on the track to intentionally bring out a caution.
DICKERSON: Denny was essentially throwing a no-hitter. It was a boring race until the end. Denny was kicking everyone’s ass.
DENNY HAMLIN: We were dominating the race. Nobody was even close. Then out of the blue, we got a flat tire with about 15 to go. It turned out to be the most disappointing night of my life.
T.J. MAJORS (then spotter for Earnhardt): We were third and running Kyle down for second, and I remember seeing Denny start slowing down. We went three-wide with those two, and we actually cleared Denny and took the lead.
EARNHARDT: We were going to win the race, but Denny stopped on the track with a flat and brought out a yellow. I was really pissed at Denny, because that’s just a move that you just don’t see a lot of people do and you’re not supposed to be doing that. I was really mad about that at the time.
HAMLIN: Yeah, well, if I hadn’t have gotten a flat tire, he would have never had a chance in the first place. But I remember parking up next to the wall. Then there was a caution — and then all hell broke loose.
On the single-file restart with six laps to go, Earnhardt was first and Busch was second. Busch initially spun his tires, but quickly caught back up to the No. 88 car. With three laps to go, Busch went low and had a nose in front of Earnhardt in Turns 1 and 2, but Earnhardt stormed back on the outside. Then the leaders raced into Turn 3, side-by-side.
BUSCH: We had a better short-run car. I wanted to make the pass and get it done because the more laps you wait, the more he’s going to inch ahead because he had the better long-run car. I felt a sense of urgency. At that point, it was three laps to go and you’re driving your butt off.
EARNHARDT: I decided to run the high groove, and if we got beat, it would be because we got beat on the bottom. Kyle was a little better than me at that time, but passing me on the bottom was going to be real hard. I was giving him a lot of room.
BUSCH: There’s no question he didn’t do anything wrong. He gave me room. As soon as we got off the gas and I went to the brake on the entry to (Turn) 3, it got light. And I just got into him.
MAJORS: I don’t think Kyle went down in there looking for contact, but he obviously got in there a little too hard and got loose and hit us.
EARNHARDT: We’ve never talked about it, but I think he was trying to get in the corner a little wider and just got in there too far. I don’t think he was trying to move me completely out of the way. And I don’t think he was trying to wreck me, because he took himself out of the lead. But it still sucked.
DICKERSON: Look, if he wanted to dump him, he would have wrecked him off Turn 2. Or he would have waited and taken the white and then done it. Or done it coming to the checkered. He didn’t mean to wreck him, no matter what.
BUSCH: It was highly unintentional. It was just hard racing — me on the inside and being loose. Those cars (the Car of Tomorrow) had all the wedge pulled out of them at that time because they wouldn’t turn. So I got loose on entry, and when I corrected, that’s who I corrected into.
CLINT BOWYER (running third at the time): I was thinking, “The only way I can win this is if those two somehow go up there and get to racing each other.” It was like, “Ohh…ohhhh…OH! It’s going to happen!” And it did! Going down that back straightaway, Kyle got underneath him. I was like, “This is it. Watch this!” And I’ll be damned if it didn’t happen right there in front of my eyes.
BUSCH: Did it hurt my feelings much when I did it? Absolutely not. I think there probably would have been a different way of racing him had it been someone I was closer to or more friendly with. But because of everything that was going on, there was an “I don’t give a shit” factor. So I didn’t care all that much. Until about six minutes later.
THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH
With Bowyer in victory lane, all the focus was on Busch and Earnhardt. Pigeon, the Jackman who had been on Busch’s team a year earlier, was now on Earnhardt’s team. He marched down pit road to confront his former driver.
RICK PIGEON: I saw it all happen with my own eyes. It was disbelief, like it was in slow motion. And emotions were high. I still had a relationship with Kyle; we were good friends. So I wanted to go down there to just, uh, convey my frustrations to him.
MAJORS: I remember (crew chief) Tony Eury Jr. coming on the radio and saying, “Everybody stay in the pit. Nobody go down there.” He did a good job of keeping everyone calm, because I’m pretty sure most of us wanted to fight. That would have been interesting. But I saw Pidge go down there, and he’s a big dude.
PIGEON: I thought I was going to get more resistance on my way there. I figured more people were going to try and stop me from getting to Kyle’s window. But it was like the parting of the seas as I was walking to the door, and I didn’t exactly have my ducks in a row as to what was going to happen when I got there.
BUSCH: Pigeon came up to me on pit road and he was like, “Why did you wreck me?” I was like, “Look, man, this world is a hell of a lot bigger than just you. It wasn’t anything to do with you or the guys on the team or Hendrick or Dale Jr. It was a full-blown accident.”
PIGEON: That’s the PG version, I think. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but that’s probably the best version that we can probably put out there.
DAVIS: It was an unfortunate situation, but when we saw Pigeon go and do that, it was a silver lining in a bad moment. I recall Dale feeling like he had the support of the team when he saw Pigeon do that. That was a big statement.
MAJORS: I went down to Jeff Dickerson on the roof and asked him, “Dude, what’s the deal?” He’s like, “Well, you guys came across our nose.” I’m like, “Are you serious? You just came up the racetrack and wrecked us!” He’s the only guy about my height, so I figured it was OK to go down there.
DICKERSON: I wasn’t worried about T.J. Majors, I was worried about every flag-wavin’, Bud-drinkin’ fan who just got woken up from their wet dream. The roar of the crowd in that moment when that went down was unreal. There was no way you were going to be able to tell 50 million people he didn’t meant to wreck him. I could feel every spotter looking at me. I remember (spotter) Brett Griffin coming over and saying, “How are you guys gonna get out of this one?”
Meanwhile, in the garage, Earnhardt told the FOX broadcast: “He’s going to need security from all of us.”
DAVIS: I remember exactly where we were when that comment happened. My assumption was he was taking his cues from the atmosphere and dejection you could feel all around you. You could feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment — and therefore support for Dale Jr. I think he was reacting to that.
EARNHARDT: That comment wasn’t joking, but the race was over. There’s nothing I could do to get to him or get at him. And not that I hoped anyone would hurt him, but had it been a more difficult situation for him trying to get out of the track, that would have kind of been OK, you know what I mean? You definitely want your fans to support you, and if you feel wronged, you want them to make a lot of noise.
DICKERSON: I remember texting (Busch’s road manager) Cody Selman. I’m like, “OK, we’re probably going to need some security.” That whole year, Kyle would get death threats. Seriously. We’d leave a track and Kyle would say, “Why are we going this way?” But we would shield him. We wouldn’t tell him, “Well, the local police tipped off NASCAR halfway through a race that you received a death threat.” That really happened. So when they put a microphone in Dale Jr.’s face and he said how Kyle was going to need some security, I remember thinking how terribly irresponsible that was, because Kyle was already dealing with death threats. And the whole place was hooting and hollering.
STEVE ADDINGTON (then Busch’s crew chief): The funny thing about Richmond is all the teams park across street and we go out through the grandstands get to our cars to go to the airport. I gathered all the guys at the (hauler) and I told them to make sure not to get into any arguments with fans. I said, “Don’t let someone start trouble with you. Just ignore it and move on and walk away.” They all changed out of their Gibbs stuff and Pedigree stuff into plain clothes so we wouldn’t have any trouble getting out of there.
MAJORS: I didn’t think the fans would let Kyle leave the racetrack. I was actually a little worried about Kyle’s safety. There’s only one way out of Richmond (for vehicles) — but luckily there’s no fans back there.
DICKERSON: I believe we got an escort out. The track was really good about it. They got Kyle to the helicopter. We had done a helicopter in, and they had security for Kyle there.
BUSCH: I don’t remember anything unusual. After I did media, we just golf-carted out. Nobody said anything. Nobody did anything. I was just on the golf cart like normal. (Editor’s note: After this was published, Busch was reminded by wife Samantha that they did encounter fans throwing things at their golf cart while leaving the track. Busch spoke in detail about it on Earnhardt’s Dirty Mo Radio podcast.)
After the Richmond race, Busch and Earnhardt’s careers began to go in opposite directions. Busch went on to win a career-high eight races while Earnhardt gradually fell into a career-worst slump that lasted until 2011. For the most part, the drivers didn’t race against each other — except for when Earnhardt paid Busch back in the September Richmond race later that year.
EARNHARDT: When that first Richmond race happened, it was like, “Shit. This is just going to add to that whole fucking mess.” And it was annoying, because every week I would go to the track wondering if Kyle was going to say something shitty. Around that time, all of the top 12 drivers would do media every Friday. So every other week, it was, “Kyle said this today. What do you think?” I’d have to respond. Or they’d come to me and I’d say something and then they’d take it to Kyle.
DAVIS: Things were just frosty with Kyle. I remember I’d run across Kyle a couple times and we would chit chat, and Kyle would be like, “Why is Dale not talking to me, huh?” Not like he was really curious.
EARNHARDT: I avoided him for awhile. I would do everything I could not to be near him. I don’t like hating someone, but I didn’t like Kyle at all. I’m sure he felt the same way about me. I was angry, and I’m sure he was angry after the next Richmond race, too.
BUSCH: He paid me right back, and nobody cares. Nobody ever says, “Kyle got paid back, now they’re even.” Nope. That whole thing cemented the fact I was public enemy No. 1, no question. There isn’t one driver out there now who could wreck me on purpose and not have the fans side with them. The fans would go crazy. They’d say, “He deserves it!”
DICKERSON: In Kyle’s camp, it wasn’t like “Man, screw Dale. That’s who we’re racing.” That was never said or talked about. We all just went into a bunker mentality. The whole world was against him, so we just focused on the racing. The 18 team had run like a bag of dicks before Kyle showed up, and all he does is hop into the car and have one of the greatest years — and he’s doing that against sold-out tracks that just hated him. Hated him. It’s amazing he’s still sane after that era. You might as well have had the red M&M on the hood with a middle finger, because that’s what he was doing.
DAVIS: Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Dale had won that race. I’ve always thought Dale’s issue was a confidence thing, and when we went through those two bad seasons in 2009 and 2010, that was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. That incident at Richmond was the beginning of a mountain of things that caused Dale Jr. to lose confidence, in my opinion.
The drivers slowly began to mend their relationship. They ended up on friendly terms for the last years of Earnhardt’s career.
EARNHARDT: I’d get asked all the time about who are the best drivers in the garage, and even if I hated Kyle Busch, you couldn’t deny he’s one of the most talented drivers in the garage. So his name comes up in conversation if you’re in the sport. That probably helped things start to thaw, but it was a real gradual change. Over time, we started interacting at driver intros a little bit. And then we started discussing things about owning our race teams, asking advice or questions about how we operate our businesses.
BUSCH: Probably around 2012 or ’13, we started talking a little bit. In 2014, I started doing some renegotiation with contracts and airplane stuff. I had a few meetings at JRM with him and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller). Kelley hated me, too. She was (probably thinking) “Kyle is the worst person on Earth.” But they accepted me being able to sit with them and have some meetings with them. They got to talk to me and understand me and hear my thoughts. They were like, “OK, he’s normal. He’s fine.”
EARNHARDT: It just took a lot of time for that hate and that uneasiness and tension to go away. But eventually it did. He put in some effort to make our relationship reasonable and tolerable and better, and I did, too. Nothing crazy. It was just, “We’re going to stop being dicks.” We just quit being dicks to each other.
More about the 2008 Richmond race:
— My race story from that night for NASCAR Scene magazine