First-class drivers

The following article appears in the Dale Earnhardt Hall of Fame collector's issue magazine, the digital version of which is free for all ESPN Insiders.

Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson and Richard Petty won a combined 326 races, but all three never ran in the same event. Petty and Johnson raced against each other in the 1950s and '60s, but by the time Earnhardt arrived in the late '70s, Johnson had hung up his helmet to become a championship team owner. The Intimidator spent his entire career chasing -- and eventually equaling -- The King's record seven Cup titles. And the car he did it in bore Johnson's No. 3, chosen by owner Richard Childress because the Last American Hero had been his childhood hero. This May, the three North Carolinians will become forever linked as the only drivers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural class.

Ryan McGee: Do you remember the first time you saw Dale Earnhardt?

Junior Johnson: Not the very first time, but I used to see him all the time when he was just a kid. I raced a lot against his daddy, Ralph. Dale and his brother were just little guys, and they'd be working on Ralph's car.

Richard Petty: Yeah, Ralph put Dale to work on his cars, just like my daddy [three-time NASCAR champ Lee Petty] put me to work, and Junior's daddy [moonshine runner Robert Glenn Johnson] put him to work. We all learned this business from our fathers. If it hadn't worked out, I guess we'd all be blaming them. [Laughs]

JJ: That's why I knew that as soon as Dale started driving he'd be good. Ralph was a great race car driver. His style wasn't like Dale's -- he was smoother. But I remember getting asked way back in 1973 who I thought would be the next big, up-and-coming stars in NASCAR. I said, "Ralph Earnhardt's boy and that mouthy little ol' boy from Tennessee."