Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s many childhood visits to Bristol Motor Speedway as a kid roaming the pits with his pals have been well-documented.
The first time he climbed behind the wheel of a race car and got to tackle the high banks of the Last Great Colosseum in a major NASCAR race probably isn’t quite as well known to his many legion of fans.
In 1997, Earnhardt Jr. made his first career start at Bristol Motor Speedway driving a black No. 7 Chevrolet Monte Carlo owned by Bristol businessman Ed Whitaker with sponsorship from Church Brothers.
Whitaker’s famed No. 7 had been driven by many of NASCAR’s greats over the years including Tim Richmond, Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, to note a few of the long list of all-star names. Dale Earnhardt Sr. also took a spin in one of Whitaker’s machines in a Bristol Grand National race in 1982, the Intimidator’s only start for the Tri-Cities area team owner.
From 1996-1997, Earnhardt Jr. had been proving himself at many of the toughest short tracks around the mid-Atlantic region in Late Model Stock Car competition. He had competed in a few Busch Series (now known as the XFINITY Series) events, but until that weekend, he had only dreamed of racing at The World’s Fastest Half-Mile .