‘Gray Ghost’ left lasting impression with Dale Jr. – Nascar
DARLINGTON, S.C. — The “Gray Ghost” lives to race again.
Or at least a very reasonable facsimile of the famous entry that was driven to victory in the 1980 Daytona 500 by NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Buddy Baker.
On Wednesday at Darlington Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. unveiled his team’s throwback paint scheme for this year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (Sunday, Sept. 4, 6 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), paying homage to the 19-time race winner and his Harry Ranier-owned, Waddell Wilson-tuned machine.
Photo credit: @Nationwide88 Twitter account
The black and silver Chevrolet carries orange numbers — 88 instead of Baker’s No. 28 — and orange stripes while featuring Nationwide branding.
But even with those minor differences, the resemblance is striking.
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It is, Earnhardt Jr. said, his favorite paint scheme.
“The black and silver, the chrome numbers that NASCAR doesn’t allow any more,” Earnhardt said. “Those chrome numbers to me were very, very cool. But the black and silver was a mean looking race car, a real tough looking race car.
“I thought the colors and the chrome numbers really complimented each other really well. Buddy was this giant guy; it probably wouldn’t have been quite as cool a paint scheme if it had been a four-foot 10 guy driving it.”
The car was named the “Gray Ghost,” a reflection of its color scheme which blended in with the racing surface of the track and its apparent ability to appear out of nowhere, speeding past unsuspecting rivals at a moment’s notice.
Baker and Wilson teamed up to win twice that season — at Daytona and again later that year at Talladega. His average winning speed of 177.602 mph at Daytona, where he led 143 of 200 laps, remains a race record.
It was especially gratifying given the team’s stumble the previous year when a clearly dominant car (Baker had won the pole and his qualifying race handily) suffered mechanical issues early in the race.
“He just seemed to be a great match with the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They were just so good, so fast. When they won the Daytona 500 after such a devastating loss after 1979 — they were the greatest thing down there, nobody could touch them throughout the entire weekend and then they didn’t even really get to race.
“And then they went back in ’80 and won, it was pretty neat; I know that was pretty special for Buddy to get that win. You can tell in some of the interviews from back then how important the Daytona 500 win was to him.”
The car and the team were no less stout at Talladega Superspeedway, Earnhardt Jr., said, adding, “Nobody could keep up with them.”
Seven-time premier series champion Dale Earnhardt ran second to Baker, but according to Earnhardt Jr., the elder Earnhardt “was just hanging on to his coattails all day long.
“(He was) just lucky to be in the draft,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think Dad had the lead somehow or another, (through) pit cycles, to where (he) had like a 10-second lead and Buddy ran him down in like 20 laps. It was ridiculous.
“You could see all day long in that particular race Buddy wasn’t even really stretching the legs in that race car. And when he had to, when he got nervous and it got down to the end and he had to make up that distance, he was beating the second-place car by half a second a lap almost. It was incredible.”
This will be the second year Darlington Raceway has featured a throwback theme, with a focus on paint schemes that ran between 1975 and 1984. Last year, Earnhardt Jr.’s entry featured a red, white and blue paint Valvoline paint scheme that honored NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and three-time series champion Cale Yarborough.
RELATED: See Dale Jr.’s paint scheme from 2015
Jim McCoy, Director of Sports Marketing for Nationwide, said the company knew as soon as last year’s throwback program hit the track at Darlington that Nationwide should be involved.
“We talked about it starting last September when we saw the pieces come together,” McCoy said. “We weren’t (the) primary (sponsor), Valvoline had the paint scheme with Dale. It just felt like we should be there.
“We love his passion and he loves what he drives and what it looks like. He’s such a great partner.
“He clearly had a vision in direction in which he wanted to head. We were supportive of that and found the right ways to infuse our logo, the historic logo (with) the ‘N’ and Eagle that’s on the hood. It was a great back-and-forth process that I think we’re all very pleased on how it turned out.”
Baker passed away Aug. 10, 2015. Come September, he and the “Gray Ghost” will be front and center once again.