Virginia is for Lovers, NASCAR, and the Drivers We Adore

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Virginia is for Lovers, NASCAR, and the Drivers We Adore
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

I was born and bred in Texas, it will always, always be my home. There is a unique hubris that comes from being from the great Lone Star state that one is hard pressed to find anywhere else, but on Saturday night Denny Hamlin made me proud to be a born again Virginian.

I fancy myself a misplaced Texan who has made Virginia my home away from home over the last couple of decades.

I fought the Civil War as a proud Rebel during a weekend at Civil War Adventure Camp in Petersburg, skydived the blue skies above Orange, gazed at the city night lights from a 15 story high-rise in Arlington, set up camp in a rickety old RV outside of Richmond International Raceway and practically lived on the beaches of Croatan and Sandbridge during my formitive years.

Virginia is for lovers, adventurists, beach bums, city slickers, NASCAR, and the drivers that we adore.


Denny Hamlin

Hamlin began his NASCAR career in 2004 by competing in five Camping World Truck Series races with EJP Racing. In 2005 he entered the Nationwide Series, replacing Mike Bliss in the No. 20 Rockwell Automotive Chevrolet. He made his Sprint Cup debut that same year in Kansas behind the wheel of the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet.

In 2006 he joined the Sprint Cup series full time and played double duty by also racing full time in the Nationwide Series.

He proved to be a worthy competitor by capturing his first wins in both series that year, taking home the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award at the end of the season and finishing third in the final Cup standings, making Hamlin the first rookie of the year ever to make it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He continued to persevere in 2007-2008 by clinching spots in both year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, twelfth and eighth respectively, but 2009 has been Hamlin’s year to shine.

During the final restart at Pocono on Aug. 3, Hamlin brazenly proclaimed “I’m going to win this race.” He steered his car from sixth to first and took the checkered flag in an emotional victory that he dedicated to his grandmother, Thelma Clark, who had passed away just days earlier.

On Saturday, Sept. 12, Hamlin dominated in Richmond and burst into Victory Lane a hometown hero. When asked about his win, Hamlin, who hails from Chesterfield VA, a suburb of Richmond, replied, “This is my house. It has been for the last two years, we just haven’t got the win to show it.

"Finally today our FedEx Toyota showed that we’re a championship contender. As I told these guys, they better watch out for us and now we’re for real.”

“Like a Daytona 500 win for anyone else. I mentioned before that I wanted to win this race before I won a 500, but now, of course, I know how special that race is to everyone.

"But this one in particular, to me, was especially after all the heartbreak, it makes it more gratifying to win now. It's by far the biggest win of my career and hopefully goes a long way for this race team over the next ten weeks.”

Richmond International Raceway is certainly not the house that Denny built, but on Saturday night he moved in and sublet it like no one’s business. Not only did he take home a first place finish, he secured his fourth consecutive place in the Chase.

Hamlin has done us Virginian’s proud, but he isn’t the only one. There are many notable drivers who hail from the Commonwealth.

Ricky Rudd

Chesapeake’s Rudd, known as the “Ironman,” for the most consecutive starts in NASCAR racing, was named the 2006 “Virginian of the Year” and in 2007 was inducted into the “Virginia Hall of Fame.”

He ran his first Sprint Cup Series race in 1975’s Carolina 500 in Rockingham, NC. He took home the (then) Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award in 1977, chalked up 23 Sprint Cup wins and ran a total of 902 races over his 32 year career.

Ironman not only applies to Rudd’s exceptional work ethic, the definition itself has proven him to be one bad mother.

In 1984, Rudd was involved in a grizzly crash during the Budweiser Shootout (formally the Busch Clash) in Daytona and suffered a severe concussion. His eyes were swollen so badly from the accident that he taped his eyelids open in order to run the Daytona 500. After Rudd’s incident, NASCAR instituted the policy of medically examining all drivers involved in an accident to ensure their safety and their ability to drive in the following week’s race.

In 1998, despite a day of high temperatures and a faulty in-car cooling system, Rudd took the checkered flag in Martinsville. He suffered blisters and burns over most of his body and conducted his Victory Lane interview lying on the ground breathing through an oxygen mask.

Ricky Rudd was named one of NASCAR’s 50 best drivers that same year.

As a newly licensed driver, I would often drive Virginia’s Route 58 from Virginia Beach to Charlotte NC. It was a stretch of two lane highway between Suffolk and Emporia that was dubbed “the Suicide Strip” due to the high number of fatal accidents that occurred along the roadway.

To deter speed demons and reckless drivers a huge billboard of the Grim Reaper holding a giant sickle was erected on both ends of the devil’s highway that stated “You are now entering the Suicide Strip!” I inhaled deeply every time that I passed that sign and didn’t exhale properly until I got to the promised land that was Emporia.

The tiny town of Emporia was not only my salvation, but home to the Sadler brothers.

Hermie and Elliott Sadler

Hermie Sadler began his NASCAR career in 1993’s Nationwide Series driving the No. 25 Shell Oil/Virginia Is For Lovers Oldsmobile scoring a win at Orange County, finishing tenth in the points standings and was named Rookie of the Year.

1994 gained Sadler another win and fifth place in the points standings. In 1995 he teamed up with his father to run the No. 1 DeWalt Tools Chevrolet, yielding six top-ten finishes and finishing thirteenth in points. The following years brought moderate results before being pushed out of his ride at the end of the 1998 season.

Sadler tried his hand in the Sprint Cup Series but struggled and was plagued with several DNQ’s. In 2001 Sadler and his wife Angela formed their own team running cars purchased from Larry Hendricks.

With only minimal success as an owner he sold his Nationwide team and a majority of his Cup team. He returned to competition briefly in 2007 at Martinsville in the Truck Series behind the wheel of Andy Hillenburg’s Chevrolet Silverado.

Sadler is currently a successful race analyst and interviewer for Speed TV and an  autism advocate who is heavily involved in the Autism Speaks charity, as his daughter Hailie was diagnosed with the disorder in 2001.

While Hermie’s racing career cooled off younger brother Elliott’s heated up.

After a knee injury ended his basketball career during his college years at James Madison University, the younger Sadler returned to his racing roots, making his Nationwide debut in 1995 by running in two races in his native state, South Boston and Richmond.

Sadler continued in the Nationwide Series until 1998 collecting five wins, 36 top-tens and five pole positions. He entered the Sprint Cup Series with Wood Brothers Racing in 1999 driving the No. 21 Citgo Ford and finished the year 24th in points, runner-up to Tony Stewart for Rookie of the Year honors.

2000 proved to be dismal, as Sadler dropped to 29th in points, failed to qualify at Talledega and scored only one top-ten finish, but he never skipped a beat. With Motorcraft signing on as Elliott’s new sponsor in 2001, he celebrated his first career win at Bristol.

Sadler left the Wood Brothers in 2003 for Robert Yates Racing to drive the No. 38 M&M’s Ford. That year would bring him two pole positions at Darlington and Talladega, along with one wild ride.

After near contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a touch of Kurt Busch’s right front fender, Sadler’s car became airborne in Talladega, flipping twice before landing on its roof, then skidded towards the banking before flipping five more times. Miraculously he emerged from the car uninjured.

2004 proved to be Sadler’s best year to date, winning races at Texas Motor Speedway and at California Speedway. He ended the year by making the Chase and finishing ninth in the points standings.

Sadler left Yates Racing in mid-2006 for greener pastures at Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Despite reports that A.J. Allmendinger would be replacing Sadler in the No. 19 Best Buy Dodge in 2009 and a threatened lawsuit for breach of contract by Sadler, the driver and race team remained partners, thanks in part to a merger by GEM and Petty Enterprises.

On a personal level, Sadler's life is flourishing. Last week before heading to Richmond for the race, he and wife Amanda announced that they are expecting their first child in March.

Ward and Jeff Burton

Centrally located on Virginia’s southern border; the historic town of South Boston is where the Brothers Burton call home.

Ward, with his sugary slow, southern drawl is often asked why his accent differs so from his brother’s. With a shrug of his shoulders he makes no excuses for his Virginian heritage as he has answered time and time again, “It’s just the way I talk.”

Younger brother Jeff jokes, “Well, all I can figure is I was born in the northernmost point of the house and Ward was born in the southernmost part.”

In 1990 Ward began his NASCAR career in the Nationwide Series. He would go on to compete in four full-time seasons, where he captured four wins, 50 top-tens and seven pole positions.

He moved into the Sprint Cup Series in 1994 driving 26 races behind the wheel of the No. 31 Hardees Chevrolet. In mid 1995 Burton landed a ride in the No. 22 Bill Davis Racing MBNA Pontiac after being released by Alan Dillard Jr. and won his first Cup race at Rockingham’s AC-Delco 400.

Burton gained respectable success over the years with Bill Davis, with a handful of wins, several top-ten finishes and a solid place in both 1999 and 2000’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

His biggest win came in 2002 as he took his Caterpillar Dodge to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. Later that same year he won the New England 300 at Loudon, NH but slipped to 25th in the points standings.

In 2003, with just four top-10 finishes, Burton left Bill Davis Racing with five races left in the season to drive the No.0 NetZero Chevrolet for Haas CNC Racing. He drove his final race in 2007 at Martinsville’s Subway 500.

On Nov. 1, 2005 Burton was appointed to the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries by Virgina Govener Mark Warner and assumed the seat on the board for Virginia's fifth Congressional District in Halifax County, VA.

Burton, an avid sportsman and conservationist, is also the founder and president of The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, and he has been a spokesperson for Virginia's 34 state parks since 2003.

Ward’s younger brother Jeff entered the Nationwide Series full time in 1989 driving the Burton Autosports Pontiac, but his first career win would not come until 1990 behind the wheel of the No. 12 Armour Lower Salt Bacon Buick.

The budding Burton played Nationwide musical seats, jumping from ride to ride for the next three years before entering the Sprint Cup Series full time in 1994 driving the No. 8 Raybestos Ford.

Burton was one of a record ten rookies that year who were eligible for the coveted Rookie of the Year award. He took the trophy at the end of the season, beating future Cup stars, Jeremy Mayfield, Joe Nemecheck, John Andretti and his brother Ward.

The relationship between Burton and Roush Racing began in 1996 driving the No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford. It was a partnership that found Jeff at the peak of his success between the years of 1997-2000, as he never finished lower than fifth in the points standings.

Burton severed his eight and a half union with Roush in mid-2004 after signing a three year contract with Richard Childress Racing driving the No. 30 AOL Chevrolet for the remainder of the season before replacing Robby Gordon the following year in the No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet.

He remains with RCR to this day behind the wheel of the No. 31 Chevrolet with his brother’s former backer Caterpillar on board as the primary sponsor and frequently double dips in the Nationwide Series piloting the No. 29 Holiday Inn Chevrolet. 

Other noteworthy NASCAR drivers from Virginia include,

Stacy Compton, Hurt, VA.

Rick Mast, Rockbridge County, VA.

Eric McClure, Chilhowie, VA.

Danny O’Quinn, Jr., Coeburn, VA.

Jason White, Richmond, VA.

Jon Wood, Stuart, VA.

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