It was Oct. 15, 2000, in the closing laps of the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
While the younger Earnhardt was hoping to steal the win, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar car coming up quickly on the right.
It was his father, Dale Earnhardt, who with a record 10 wins there, mesmerized many with his ability to weave through traffic.
And even though Junior watched as his father proved he indeed knew best, it was also a cathartic moment of sorts for the younger Earnhardt.
Sure, he finished 14th, but the lesson he learned watching his father roar to the front and to Victory Lane for the 76th and what would be the final time of his Sprint Cup career, is one Junior will never forget.
And one that will always bring a smile to his face every time he tells the story. Just like he did Friday at Talladega.
Rather than interjecting our own point of view, let’s let Junior tell the story in his own inimitable way.
“I was sitting behind Mike Skinner. We were in a single-file line on the inside and Mike was protecting the bottom. And I was going to sit there until the last lap and try to pass him. And, Dad’s line formed on the outside and was coming.
“I could see him in the mirror knocking off a few guys each corner and getting closer toward the lead. And then I had to decide whether I was going to try to pass Mike now, and then maybe battle my dad for the lead, which was probably the best thing I could have done. Was I going to push Mike and try to work hard?
“I knew that pushing Mike Skinner past Daddy was not going to work well. I think I was riding home with Daddy anyways (laughter). I didn’t have a plane then, I don’t think. I knew he wouldn’t have wanted that; for me to do that, you know?
“You can’t communicate at that moment, but you’re just thinking about a million things like he’s passing me. Part of me is pulling for him; the other part of me is thinking I’m not in the situation I want to be in because I thought I was just going to have to try to pass Mike. That was the only thing I had to worry about until the end of the race.
“Now, our lane is not the lead lane. What do I got to do to get our lane back into the lead? So now again, it’s against me and Mike. But Dad, I don’t want to push Mike in our lane past Dad. So I started not pushing Mike. I started lifting.
“And then our line really started falling. And then I decided coming through the tri-oval that I was going to pass Mike. And I went to the bottom and he stayed against the apron. So he said basically at that point, if you’re going to pass me you’re going into this corner on the apron. And that wasn’t going to work. I was going to wreck myself and Mike and everyone else. So, I had to lift. And when I lifted to get back in line, I fell to like 14th place. Of course we had already lost about five or six spots to Dad’s line. But, it was a mess.
“I just sort of felt destructed, mentally, when all that was happening because I didn’t know exactly what I should do, what Tony (Eury) Sr. wanted me to do on the pit box, what dad wanted me to do; but he won the race. It worked out for him and that was good. It was a hell of a comeback. And it’s great for (runner-up) Kenny Wallace. He seems to really enjoy being a part of that story; and he’s such a great guy and he had a lot of respect for dad.
“So, it’s just great to hear that story. I hate to think about how it went for me because I wanted to win the race. We were just starting to sort of understand our strength at DEI as a plate track powerhouse. We began to win races after that. I’d like to try it again. I wish we could do it again because I think I would have done a lot of things differently.”