SPARTA, Ky. — The plan was to hitch a ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 88 hauler from Kentucky Speedway back to the Hendrick Motorsports race shop in Concord, N.C.
I envisioned reporting on the experience, interviewing the driver, then gently nodding off to sleep on our nonstop red-eye and leaving the driving to the professional.
Problem was, the need for a relief driver for Andy Taylor, the primary driver of the No. 88 hauler, on this 498-mile overnight trek left no room for a third wheel in the cab of their 2011 Freightliner Coronado.
Now I was faced with the reality of having to drive the same distance to North Carolina with my colleague, photographer Barry Chin, who made it clear from the outset he was not likely to be in any condition to do much — if any — driving after spending a long night in record heat while covering the race from the No. 88 pit box.
I worked the race from the same pit, which didn’t help my cause. When the race ended around 10:30 p.m., Barry suggested I go to our rented SUV, crank up the air conditioning, and take a nap before following the 88 hauler out of the track.
I retreated to the media center to collect my belongings. As I was leaving, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp, whom I had briefed on our project, called out, “Have a safe ride.’’
The growing knot in my stomach gave me no reassurance about that prospect.
“I feel like I’m getting ready to run the Boston Marathon,’’ I muttered to Tharp.
I got in our SUV, and tried to get some sleep, but the track’s lights glared at me like a 1,000-watt interrogation lamp and prevented me from resting. Thoughts of our car plunging off the side of a steep, winding road in Great Smoky Mountain National Park didn’t help. After waiting an hour and a half for the 88 hauler to roll through the tunnel exit, we were off. Departure time: 1:40 a.m.
We trailed the hauler as best we could through Interstate 71 traffic, with Barry hanging out of the passenger’s side window to shoot video and still photos. The hauler had two huge advantages: 1. Relief driver Scott Denton was properly rested, having spent much of the race resting at a nearby hotel; and 2. It had a bigger fuel capacity (300 gallons of diesel) than our car (16.7 gallons of unleaded).
We tried to keep pace on Interstate 75, but lost the hauler near Lexington, Ky., when they formed up with the 48 and 24 haulers and pulled away. By then, Barry, clearly exhausted from all his efforts, had lapsed into a deep slumber.
Having made only one stop for coffee, and with little on the radio except for some gospel music, I fought through the fatigue, until I began driving with one eye open just north of Knoxville, Tenn. Time for a driver change.
We stopped at a sketchy truck stop to refuel and picked up some snacks, including some BBQ-flavored brisket beef jerky that kept Barry awake all the way to the Smoky Mountains, which proved to be Heartbreak Hill for him. It prompted me to take over the rest of the drive after we crossed into North Carolina.
Bleary eyed, we finally reached our hotel in Concord, N.C., having completed the trip some 1½ hours after the 88 hauler’s arrival at the team’s shop. Taylor and Denton made no stops, Barry and I made four: coffee (Kentucky), gas (Tennessee), bathroom and breakfast (North Carolina).
Arrival time after 9½ hours of driving: 11:07 a.m.
The trip by the numbers
78,500 -- Average payload in pounds of the 88 hauler.
498 -- Miles from Kentucky Speedway to Concord, N.C.
300 -- Gallons of diesel fuel the 88 hauler was capable of carrying fully topped off.
16.7 -- Gallons of unleaded our SUV was capable of carrying.
5.35-- Gas mileage the 88 hauler gets per gallon of diesel fuel.
1:40 -- Time (a.m.) we departed Kentucky Speedway July 1 after the Quaker State 400.
11:07 -- Time (a.m.) we arrived at our hotel in Concord, N.C.
4 -- Number of stops we made for coffee, gas, bathroom break, and breakfast.
0 -- Number of stops 88 relief driver Scott Denton made on the 498-mile trip.