The Connection Between a NASCAR Fan and Their Favorite Driver

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IJune 24, 2009

There is a story behind why NASCAR fans bleed certain colors.

There's a reason why they choose to only buy products associated with someone that drives a stock car, or why they choose not to buy products associated with someone that drives a stock car.

Every race fan has a story of why they chose the driver they will go down fighting for.

To some, it’s the way the driver looks. To others, it’s the way he acts. Then there are some that just want to root for a winner.

Each race along the way helps develop a connection, or bond, with the fan and that driver, one that they can only explain and one that is unique to only them.

Growing up, I had two others that watched NASCAR with me when I became interested in the sport back in 2001. First, was my father, who has repeatedly said that he only watches racing because I got him back interested in it. The other person was his father, my Grandfather Timothy Crandall, Sr.

Every week, Dad and I pulled for the red Budweiser Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., something that continues nine long years later.

My grandfather had a personal connection with racing. His former boss in East Brunswick, N.J., was Wally Dallenbach, Sr., the father of current TNT broadcaster Wally Dallenbach, Jr.

Dallenbach, Sr. was friends with Mario Andretti, and one day, as my grandfather was changing the oil in his street car, Andretti came to the company.

He asked my grandfather if he could take the car for a ride, and upon returning, he complimented how nice the car was and how great it drove.

All of this didn’t make it surprising that my grandfather was more of a fan that rooted for the underdogs or the drivers that were once the face of NASCAR.

“Sterling Marlin’s going to win today, you better watch,” he would tell me. Or it was, “Kyle Petty’s gonna shock everyone and pull it off.”

I, of course, didn’t buy what he was selling. It was just entertaining to listen whom he was going to pull for each weekend.

As my passion for NASCAR grew, so did my following of Earnhardt, Jr. He was the driver that I pulled the hardest for to get into victory lane, and when he had a good day, it seemed I did.

When he had a bad one, so did I.

Only, it wasn’t until 2004 that I really understood what it meant to have a bond with your driver, and what it really felt like to go through the ups and downs with them.

My grandfather was told he had colon cancer in late 2004, which was a year that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was seriously contending for a championship.

This is when my life started to hit rock bottom.

Shortly after my grandfather was diagnosed, Earnhardt, Jr. was in a fiery wreck in Sonoma, Calif.

Life after that was watching my grandfather go through surgery in August and receive a clean bill of healthfor the moment.

Earnhardt, Jr. added to my walking on cloud nine by winning the Sharpie 500 at Bristol that same month.

At first, it was just a coincidence that a hard time in my life followed up by a rebound matched up with such a time in Earnhardt, Jr.’s.

Or so I thought.

It’s well documented that 2005 was not the best year for the No. 8 team, switching teams with then-teammate Michael Waltrip in order to help the performance of both cars. However, it didn’t work, and the Bud team finished 19th in points.

For the Crandall family, it wasn’t exactly a year to remember.

On April 3, 2005, I sat next with my grandmother at her sister's funeral. My grandfather wasn’t in attendance, as he was at the doctor’s office for a checkup.

He was complaining of having trouble swallowing, saying things felt stuck in his chest. After informing the doctor and having tests done, the reason for his pain was found.

When those of us at the funeral returned home, the day went from bad to worse.

The cancer had come back, spread through his body, and had taken up position on his esophagus.

The esophagus is a muscular tube in the throat and chest where food passes through on its way to the stomach. Esophageal cancer results in all the pain my grandfather was describing, difficulty swallowing and eventual tumors.

Life for my grandfather became nothing but Hell.

Monday and Friday, it was a trip to the Oncology office. He would sit in a chair for two hours as an IV pumped him full of medication. Then, a chemotherapy pump would be placed on him, which stayed there for the entire week.

From there, it was off to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital for a radiation treatment. My grandmother still remembers the sound the chemo made as it went into my grandfather’s body, as well as the terrible odor.

That was just Mondays and Fridays.

Tuesday through Thursday, he would also be at the hospital every day for more radiation treatments. And sometimes, the medicine made him so sick to where he was leaking from both ends of the body.

Every week, the process repeated itself.

When the 2006 season started for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. the biggest goal was to not have a repeat of the previous year.

And I know that I couldn’t personally take anything else negative happening.

I wanted something good to happen, in both my driver’s life and my grandfathers. Not since I was a little girl had I actually wished for anything, but now in my family’s darkest days, I was wishing for the cancer to just disappear.

I was also wishing that my driver could turn things around.

Earnhardt, Jr. started having a decent year, but my grandfather continued to fight his battle, and I found myself bottling up more and more emotion.

In March of 2006, my grandfather had another X-ray taken, and as many remember it, they couldn’t believe what they saw.

My grandmother recalls: “When I looked at the X-rays in January, all I seen was, cause it looks like little black spots, and I just saw one they [the doctors] said they were going to keep an eye on. And then in March, when I looked at that X-ray, oh my God, it wasn’t just spots. It [the cancer] was all over the place.”

In a sick twist of fate, the only thing that hadn’t been touched by the cancer was his colon.

I finally admitted, thanks to my grandfather continually saying it, that he probably wasn’t going to be around much longer. I had to accept the fact that the man I had grown up living next door to, just a gate or hop of the fence away, was fighting a losing battle.

On a Sunday afternoon, I remember standing in the kitchen of my church in tears after leaving the service because of the message that day, and I kept saying to myself that I wanted Earnhardt, Jr. to win before I lost my grandfather.

Call it selfish, but I wanted the last race and last victory lane celebration my grandfather saw to be of my driver.

Then, my grandfather's health became much worse, and he was in the hospital for a couple of months. My routine became going to school, going to work, going to the hospital, going home to bed, and doing the same thing every so often.

The truth was though; I didn’t want to be at the hospital. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my grandfather, and looking back, I feel I should have spent more time there, but I didn’t want to see him like that.

He was suffering and being eaten alive, and there was nothing I could do about it.

All I wanted to do was go home and watch NASCAR. That was my safety zone. Everything was fine in NASCAR, and while watching my favorite sport, I could escape the reality of what was actually taking place.

On Friday, May 5, 2006, my grandfather was finally released from the hospital and brought home.

Hospice was hired to attend to him when my mother, grandmother, or anyone else wasn’t trying to make him comfortable.

On Saturday, May 6, 2006, I got one of my wishes.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went out and won Richmond, and for a few hours, all was right in my world. My Grandfather was home, and my driver had found victory lane.

In a moment of self-pity, it was to me as if my grandfather had seen me happy, and now he knew it was time to go.

The only problem was, I couldn’t find the words to say it.

The Tuesday following Richmond, my mother told me that it was time I express to my grandfather that I would be OK if he passed away, that I didn’t want him to suffer anymore, and that everything would be fine.

I couldn’t do it.

Tears fell from my eyes, my knees buckled and my throat clogged as I left my grandparents' house that night and never let him know exactly how I felt.

It wasn’t that I wanted him to live just so that he couldn’t leave me, or that I wanted him to suffer, but I couldn’t turn into the person that gives someone, a close family member, the permission to die.

To this day, that is something that will continue to eat away at me and be one of my biggest regrets.

Four days after celebrating Earnhardt, Jr.’s win at Richmond, my grandfather, Timothy Crandall Sr., lost his battle with cancer on May 10, 2006.

After that, nothing mattered to me.

Upon being told the news, I collapsed in the parking lot of my high school, went home, locked myself in my room, and cried for days. I paced on the street in front of our houses, just waiting for the nightmare to be over, and for him to come walking out the door to do yard work.

I watched racing, but with deaf ears, and I became a skeleton of the person I once was. I can admit that I didn’t know, and still don’t know, how to deal with losing someone that was that close to me.

I stopped going to church, something my grandfather and I would always do. The excuses started coming: I was sick or had work to do, and sometimes there really was work to do, but really I was angry with God.

To begin with, I’ve always had a hard time believing in a high power, and now I had lost all faith.

When my grandfather got sick and started losing a lot of weight and then all of his hair, when he was told that he only had a five percent chance of surviving, he never once complained to anyone in the family, he never asked “why me?”

He never really had to, since I was doing plenty of that for him.

How could He take away someone that had done nothing bad in his life? Why did He have to strike him with a deadly disease, as millions of other horrible people got to live their life?

Instead of going to church and looking for God in my time of need, I blamed him. I stayed at home in bed till noon on Sundays and waited for the race to come on, feeling like I had no reason to get up.

The racing though, didn’t help much. I had put all of my grief on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s shoulders and expected him to be the one to make me feel better.

The only problem was, Earnhardt Jr. never won another race after my grandfather’s death, and the more horrible I was personally feeling, all the more worse it seemed Earnhardt, Jr. was running.

A year later, things weren’t much better.

Going through the first holidays without my grandfather at the table to make fun of something we were eating, or not showing up at dinnertime, claiming that my grandmother always starved him, so he needed to eat with us. My grandfather loved to eat, and when he got sick, he was never able to eat like he was used to. The only thing he was got were thick milkshakes or liquid morphine.

Gone were the days of him creating nonsense jingle that he always had to share with everyone.

Nothing felt right.

Nothing was the same, and being a person that hates change, it just became that much harder to cope. I continued to withdraw.

As the one-year anniversary of his death approached, I knew that things would be even harder.

Add to the fact that there were rumors swirling that Earnhardt, Jr. would soon be looking for another team to drive for, and was once again in the midst of a horrible/winless season, did not help ease my pain.

The day May 10 came and went. I attended school and tried to stay focused. I actually don’t remember much more from that day. Most likely, it’s blocked from my mind.

The next day, May 11, 2007, was a different story.

One year and one day after losing my grandfather, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced he would be leaving the company he’s driven for all his life, the one founded by his late father.

The driver that I spent so long rooting for, and had spent so much money invested in, was going to be driving for a different team with different colors and a different number.

In June, one month and a day before what would have been my grandfather’s 71st birthday, Earnhardt, Jr. announced he would be joining Hendrick Motorsports.

Once again, whatever it was that was holding Earnhardt, Jr. and me together, was out in full force.

And finally, I thought, he might just win again.

February of 2009 was a bright spot for both Earnhardt, Jr. and myself. The Budweiser Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel was ours, but since they weren’t point-paying races, the winless drought was still going strong.

I, on the other hand, had finally re-found some of my confidence. I was back on top in school and was slowly coming out of the shell I barricaded myself in.

I knew that Earnhardt, Jr. could win. His season was starting off very well, and it was just a matter of when it was going to happen.

And with every passing race that the victory slipped away, I would say to myself that Grandpa was setting it up for something big.

Or at least, that’s what I needed to tell myself.

Because the month of May was approaching, and so was Richmond. Richmond has always been one of the races that has always been special to me. Night racing at a short track is something I excitedly look forward to.

Considering that was the last race that my grandfather was here for, and the one that Earnhardt, Jr. scored his last victory at heading into the 2008 season, it will now more than ever have a special place in my heart.

On May 3, 2008, it looked as though Earnhardt, Jr. would be able to break back into victory lane, and that my two-year struggle would come to an end for at least one night.

Even better, it might end at the same place that it started nearly two years earlier.

After Denny Hamlin, who had the dominant car, fell victim to a flat tire, Earnhardt, Jr. inherited the lead and had three circuits left to hold off Kyle Busch.

The celebration would have to wait, because as like two years ago, things changed in just a matter of seconds when Busch put Earnhardt, Jr. in the turn three wall.

Victory watch was still intact, and I still had nothing to smile about.

A week later, on the two-year anniversary of my grandfather’s death, the Sprint Cup Series was in Darlington, and a strong run by Earnhardt, Jr. was definitely a good feeling until once again, Kyle Busch got the last word and won the race.

But now, two years after losing him, more and more of my old self was emerging. I found my determination and reason for working so hard and having that feeling of wanting to do well for someone.

Even in death, I still striving for my grandfather to be proud of me.

Things were beginning to feel normal to me again. As much as I still hated it, I had accepted that he was gone, and that it was something I needed to live with. Plus, even though he was still winless, Earnhardt, Jr. was off to the best start in his career.

Heading into Michigan on Father’s Day weekend, a victory was the furthest thing from my mind. I had no doubt that Earnhardt, Jr. could and most likely would run well, but I had no idea that he might be able to get the checkered flag.

Every fan has that race and those final laps where they are on the edge of their seats and go through periods of anxiety as they hope there driver can survive the last few laps and win the race.

As Earnhardt, Jr. attempted to pull off a fuel mileage victory, my heart raced, my palms were sweaty and I couldn’t stop pacing. So much ran through my mind as the drama and the tension built.

Could he make it on fuel?

When Earnhardt, Jr. crossed the finish line and won his first race in two years, I can admit that I cried.

I cried for him, for myself, and for my family. I didn’t care that people were calling it a cheap win, and I didn’t care that people were calling it controversial.

All I cared about was that I could finally celebrate and be happy.

Two years of agony, two years of trying to deal with the loss of a loved one, to finally have something great happen, and on Father’s Day, was a sign that I needed.

Some say they don’t believe the dead can speak to you, and neither do I. But after losing someone so close to me, I do believe in signs, and I do believe that Earnhardt, Jr.’s win was my grandfather’s way of telling me that it was OK for me to be happy. It was OK and necessary that I go on with my life. Everyone needs a sign.

Things had come full circle for me, and it felt great.

Just recently, another anniversary has passed and things are still hard. I still find it troubling to go to church, and when I am there, I sense my mood change for the worst as soon as I walk through the door. It’s going to take some time before I get over the fact that I blame God for taking my grandfather away.

Earnhardt, Jr. is having another forgettable year, but things seem to be turning around. Progress is being made with his new crew chief, and everyone is working hard.

One day, I’ll get to celebrate again, and I’m sure my grandfather will be too.

Every time I turn on a NASCAR race, I think about him, and every time I see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. I feel my grandfather with me.

It’s still taking time getting used to looking next door and not see him starring out the window. He loved to check up on all the neighbors, or see his truck in the driveway that he called “Betsey.”

It’s even harder when family members say to me, “if only your grandfather was here,” or, “if your grandfather could see how you’re doing.”

Ironically, I feel as though he can see how I’m doing.

It wasn’t but a couple days ago that I fretted over another poor finish by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and I knew I needed to take a walk to calm down. Blocks from my house and still angry, the sky opened up.

No warning, no dark clouds or sprinkles, no thunder. A sudden downpour was upon me, with nowhere to run for cover, except to try and book it home.

Message received Grandpa: time to get over it.

Racing has always been something that I loved. And family has always been something that is important to me.

Combined, it makes perfect sense why I probably take things a lot harder and personal than the next person.

Have no fear, though; every Sunday is another day in my healing process.

“We’re all going to die,” Grandpa said. “I’m just going to go a little sooner than you are. But I’m curious: everyone always tells you how beautiful it is [heaven], so I’m real curious to go to see if they’re telling me the truth.” 


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