Earnhardt Jr. Paces Field at Darlington in Goodwrench Nova Driven by his Father

Ron Lemasters | 5/7/2021

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Darlington Raceway News XFINITY Series

After locating the car that Dale Sr. built and drove in the 1980's, Dale Jr. purchased the Nova and restored it to its original condition.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (May 7, 2021) – Darlington Raceway is NASCAR’s first superspeedway, torn out of the South Carolina countryside by Harold Brasington and forever etched into the collective soul of the sport.

On Saturday, when the Steakhouse Elite 200 for NASCAR Xfinity Series machines gets under way, another icon that bears universal witness to NASCAR fans will appear once again on the egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval, driven by the son of the man who came to epitomize toughness in the driver’s seat at the place dubbed “Too Tough To Tame.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive a No. 8 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet at the head of the field for the initial pace laps. It’s one any Earnhardt fan will recognize, as it was built and driven by his father.

 

 

The car has a rich history, and the story of how it came to be on the track again 37 years after it was built is quite a tale as well, with as many moving parts as there are in the Chevrolet engine that powers it.

It’s the same No. 8 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Nova that Dale Earnhardt Sr. built in 1984 to run in what was then the Busch Grand National Series (today’s NASCAR Xfinity Series)...and yet, it isn’t. It was originally built as a Pontiac Ventura (there not being much difference between the Nova and the Ventura back then as both were GM models) and carried Wrangler blue and yellow, not the black, silver and red of Goodwrench it wears today.

“Dale Sr. had that chassis built at Hutcherson Pagan in the spring of 1984,” said Robert Gee Jr., Dale Sr.’s brother-in-law and Dale Jr.’s uncle. “We built it in 21 days and took it to Charlotte Motor Speedway and ran it in the spring race. He ran third in the race, the first race for that car. He ran it off and on, six or eight times a year, from 1984 up until 1988 or 1989. Then we changed over to a Monte Carlo Aero Coupe. That was just a speedway car, from Daytona down to Rockingham.”

To his recollection, the car was a winner.

“It’s won at Daytona, probably at Rockingham, at Darlington and Charlotte,” Gee said. “It was built as a Pontiac Ventura, and the last two years he switched it over to the Nova. There wasn’t a lot of difference in those two cars, just the front end sheet metal, really it was just the hood and the grille.”

Dale Sr., Gee Jr. and others built the car in the garage behind Martha Earnhardt’s house in Kannapolis. After locating the original car at an auction, Dale Jr. arranged to purchase it and brought it home to Mooresville. That was after a long examination revealed it was indeed the same car his father had driven.

The younger Earnhardt remembered the hammered floor in the original car, as well as details about the peculiar way the radio box had been installed. Via an old photograph of him in the car as a youngster, Dale Jr. confirmed that the pop-rivet holes matched the box and were correct, while Gee verified the hand-made driveshaft hoop Dale Sr. had created that was still on the car.

Once provenance was confirmed, the work of restoring it began.

“We restored it from top to bottom,” Gee said. “It’s back to original. We cut everything that wasn’t original off, and made it all back to original. It could be raced the way it is today. We even cut parts of the chassis off. It had been modified. We took the whole rear clip off because it had been modified for a quick-change rear end. We ran a 9-inch rear end. We did a lot of work on it.”

It took the better part of two years, off and on, he said.

“We worked on that car for almost two years,” he remembered. “We couldn’t work on it all the time, it was a side project. Dale Jr. didn’t have it long before we got it.”

Building the original was not the way cars are constructed today. It was a community effort.

“It was just local help, just built it in the back yard,” Gee said. “Dale Sr. worked on the car himself, did a lot of the work. The seat in it is an original seat of that era, not his (Dale Sr.’s) seat, but the same kind of seat he raced.”

Once it was built and ready, the Nova occupied a spot on the shop floor at JR Motorsports, waiting for its chance to run again. Being a student of history as well as a sentimental person, Dale Jr. had a plan.

On a recent episode of The Dale Jr. Download, his eponymous podcast from Dirty Mo Media, Earnhardt Jr. laid it out.

“...I’ve been in touch with Kerry Tharp at Darlington Raceway for about a year about leading the field on the pace laps for the Xfinity race,” he said. “It should probably lead that field if it’s ever going to do something like that. I’m going to take it up there on a gooseneck trailer, pull it into the track, unload it, put it up there in front of the field, do the pace laps, pull it back into the pits and up on the trailer and probably take it home.”

Before rolling it onto the trailer for the trip to Darlington, Dale Jr. needed to know the car was right so as not to mess up the start of the throwback weekend race.

“We needed to make sure that the car was set up, meaning that the rear-end housing is in it straight, it has the right caster and camber and toe settings so that it drives in the right direction and looks good doing it,” he said in a later podcast.

All that was left then was a track test, which happened several weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Once the car was there and unloaded, Earnhardt Jr. got behind the wheel and put the car through its paces, doing four or five laps at about 60 miles per hour.

“We wanted to make sure nothing funky happens, no leaks or the car runs hot, nothing that would affect the race,” he said. “I am really nervous, only because I don’t want to have a problem that affects the race. Hopefully it’s going to look great on the track. It looked great in our videos driving it around the parking lot in the industrial park where JR Motorsports is.”

 

 

One of the people watching with interest happened to be Marcus Smith, the president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports and the general manager of the speedway itself. As a thank-you, Smith got to run a few laps of his track in the car.

“That was so cool...sitting in that seat, so low, leaning over to the left...that was the coolest thing,” said Smith on a recent edition of the Dale Jr. Download. “It is so special. You did a great job on that car.”

It had an effect on Earnhardt Jr. as well. “I loved watching it go by, because I’d watched it race there so many times as a kid...seeing it come down that straightaway, it was like we were standing back in time. It was as much fun to watch it go by as it was driving it.”

Earnhardt Jr. said the test confirmed that all was well mechanically with the car.

“It passed with flying colors,” he said. “Everything worked perfectly. The car drives well. I did not open it up. I have way too much invested in that car to be getting reckless with it.”

Even so, Earnhardt Jr. did admit he didn’t stay under the 60-mph limit. “I went probably 100 mph,” he said. “It works really good, drives good. I’m looking forward to trailering it to Darlington.”

When it gets there, based on the process he outlined above, Earnhardt Jr. will have his moments on the track in the car his father and his family built. The rest of the NASCAR community will have a few moments to celebrate the Earnhardt legacy one more time...in person.

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XFINITY Series Schedule

  • July 9 05:00 PM ET
    Alsco Uniforms 250Atlanta Motor Speedway
  • July 16 02:30 PM ET
    NXS Race at New HampshireNew Hampshire Motor Speedway
  • July 23 05:00 PM ET
    NXS Race at PoconoPocono Raceway
  • July 30 03:30 PM ET
    Pennzoil 150Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
  • August 6 03:30 PM ET
    NXS Race at MichiganMichigan International Speedway

XFINITY Series Standings

After Henry 180

Road America | 7/2/2022
RankDriverPointsBehind
1AJ Allmendinger6340
2Ty Gibbs625-9
3Justin Allgaier600-34
4Noah Gragson595-39
5Josh Berry560-74
6Brandon Jones495-139
7Sam Mayer487-147