At the height of his father's success at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would sit in the Turn 1 condos overlooking the track.
The Earnhardts are from Kannapolis, just one town away, and watching Dale Earnhardt at the speedway was a source of pride. Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the late Earnhardt sweeping both the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, an event his son compared to the years his father dominated NASCAR.
"In '86 and '87, they were really about as great as you could be, and it was just a lot of fun to watch," Earnhardt said. "I know the 600 was a big race and it's still a big race, but we didn't have Indy and places like that to share the spotlight. This was a big event, and it was similar to Daytona, and everybody was at the 600 and everybody was here.
"We would sit up in those condos and watch everything. All the practices and every lap, that every car ran all weekend long, and it was just a lot of fun, and certainly a different time and different sport than it is today. But it was a good experience for me in just being young and having the run of the place really."
It's helped create a connection for Earnhardt with the speedway, where he won the All-Star race as a rookie in 2000. He's never won the 600 or the fall race at Charlotte in 26 tries.
It made it difficult for NASCAR's most popular driver last October when a concussion forced him to miss the race. It marked the first time an Earnhardt didn't race at Charlotte since 1978, and the first time an Earnhardt missed a Cup race since the 1979 Southern 500.
Regan Smith replaced Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet, and he wrestled with whether to attend the race or watch it on TV at home.
He ultimately decided his presence would have been a distraction and unfair to Smith, who was thrust into the substitute role on little notice.
"I wanted Regan and the guys to concentrate and do the best job they could," Earnhardt said. "Emotionally, it was just really hard to watch the car practice. Watching the race was — I knew I wasn't going to race — but the hard part is to see the car practice because I enjoy the process that we go through in practice when it's me and the guys and we are trying to figure out how to go faster.
"Once you are in the race, you have set the table and you sit down and you have dinner and whatever happens, happens. The preparation and buildup to it is what I enjoy most and I just really didn't like watching that. They were fast but man, when the car would go fast it was just a lot of emotions like envy and jealousy and just wishing to be out here. I was real selfish about it, I guess to a fault. But I am competitive and I wanted to be in the car and glad that I am back."