By Jerry Jordan, Editor
and Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
As the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season begins, only one full-time active driver on the grid, Kurt Busch, competed with the late Dale Earnhardt, which by default also makes him the last active driver to get the infamous middle finger from The Intimidator.
In the final races of the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Busch replaced Chad Little in the then-Roush Racing No. 97 John Deere Ford Taurus. Across the final seven races of the season, Busch bested the seven-time NASCAR Champion just once. At the 2000 Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Busch finished 19th, with Earnhardt one spot behind in 20th.
The story of that race at Homestead actually started a week prior. An incident between Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. figuratively twisted the elder Earnhardt’s arm. He felt he had to do something and he did. With Earnhardt Jr. in a battle for Rookie of the Year honors, Earnhardt Sr. took it upon himself to intimidate Busch for the entirety of a 400-mile race.
“I had seven races with him (in 2000),” Busch explained. “I actually bumped Dale Jr. at Rockingham and spun him. At the time Jr. and (Matt) Kenseth were neck-and-neck for the Rookie of the Year race. So, Sr. made it his project all day long to sweat me at Homestead. It was like we were running 18th all day and he stayed right there to make sure he rearranged my bumper, all day long. His car was good enough for top-five, but he hung with me to mess with me and my day.
“He could control a race like no other person, I’m glad I got to race with him a few times.”
Ultimately, Busch’s on-track competition with Earnhardt was cut short in the 2001 Daytona 500. The duo had an altercation on track that resulted in ‘The Intimidator’ giving Busch the one-finger salute. Unfortunately, Busch never got to find out what he had done to make the seven-time champion angry that day.
About 21 years on from Earnhardt’s death, Busch recalled that day in the back of the 23XI Racing team hauler as he waited to go out for the final Cup Series practice of the weekend.
“It was a fun race, and I was a rookie, I had no idea what I was doing,” Busch seemed to remember fondly. “A third of the way through the race, I found the top-five by accident. Thought I was minding my own business and the 3 car comes by the outside, almost scrapping, rubbing, and carves right in front of me. Then I see the middle finger out the window. I don’t know what I just did, what did I do wrong? I never got to talk to him about it. It was a sad ending for everyone.”
As time marched on, the number of active drivers who’ve competed in the same races as Earnhardt have dwindled. Derrike Cope, Brendan Gaughan, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman each have stepped away from the sport. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bill Elliott have competed on a very limited part-time basis in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Todd Bodine is climbing back behind the wheel for a handful of Camping World Truck Series races to hit a career milestone. Still, none of them are active drivers and none of them received “the finger” on that fateful day.
“It is a good certification that I’m old,” the 43-year-old Busch admitted. “I’m experienced, as well. Even calling a Truck race last night, they said it was the 23rd annual truck race. I was in the first one. I was like ‘woah, wait a minute, there’s been that many!’ It’s been great. I’m very privileged to have been with some good teams and we’ll continue to ride the wave.”
Today, it’s far more common for drivers on track to have watched Earnhardt or been inspired by him, or his son, than to have competed with him.
For Busch, this year with 23XI Racing marks his 22nd full season in the Cup Series. Barring an unforeseen absence, the Las Vegas, NV native will reach 792 career starts by the season’s end.
“This has been great to build up a brand-new team, car number, and to be with Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, who have a group of guys that will always have my fingerprints on this car number,” Busch said. “This situation, it’s a perfect timing in my career.
“There’s certain things about the Next-Gen car that have been muted, the side draft isn’t as effective. Yet the single-file lane and when you catch somebody it’s twice as aggressive. You have to manage when you pull out of line and what it does to the horsepower because the air intake is attached to the radiator intake. There’s a bunch of new combos and I think we’ll get spread out at times on Sunday. Once sundown comes, you’re going to see the same three-wide racing and everybody ripping and gouging to win ‘The Great American Race.’”