- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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For Andy Pilgrim, it's a dream come true. For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it's the fulfillment of a promise made by his father years ago.
Now, of course, it's time for the payoff, and that will come this Saturday in Montreal (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET) and next weekend in Watkins Glen, N.Y., as NASCAR's Busch Series goes road racing. Once Dale Jr. decided to replace Shane Huffman as driver of his No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, the focus turned toward building for the future and getting as high in the owners' standings as possible.
Brad Keselowski has driven the car the past three races and likely will return to the ride at Michigan. But with consecutive road courses on tap, Earnhardt knew exactly which driver he wanted behind the wheel.
Enter Pilgrim, who was part of the team that included Earnhardt and his father in the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Pilgrim helped both Earnhardts adapt to the Chevrolet Corvette, and the result was a fourth-place finish out of 79 teams.
At the time, the elder Earnhardt promised Pilgrim a ride in a NASCAR race someday. Dale Sr., though, was killed in the Daytona 500 just weeks later, and Pilgrim pushed thoughts of NASCAR aside.
"I remember Dale told me he wanted to put me in a car for a road course race, and he seemed serious, but I'm one of those people who is a bit of a pragmatist. You don't say anything to anyone in case it never happens, but you're thinking, 'Man, that would be so cool,'" Pilgrim said. "Unfortunately, that chapter closed, and it was like 'That's OK. It was real nice to think about it.'
"Suddenly, Junior calls me and asks if I'd like to test the car and possibly race it. What can I say? I'm absolutely thrilled to be part of the deal. Even though this is obviously brand-new to me, it feels like old times again. It feels like family."
Besides hoping for an edge with Pilgrim behind the wheel, the chance to fulfill one of his father's wishes also played a role in the car owner's decision. Junior easily could have found a road course driver with stock car experience eager to get behind the wheel, but that wasn't what he had in mind.
"My dad told Andy that he'd give him a shot at driving one of his cars after racing in the Corvette at Daytona," Earnhardt said. "He wasn't able to make good on that promise, so I'm doing it for him."
The deal was finalized once Pilgrim tested the Monte Carlo at Virginia International Raceway last month. He had driven for 20 years, but never a stock car, so Pilgrim was quick to reflect upon what he has learned from others over the years before climbing behind the wheel.
Boris Said and Ron Fellows are veterans on NASCAR road courses, and Pilgrim has made mental notes as they described the cars. Still, hearing about the cars was one thing; driving one was an eye-opener.
"I was so impressed with the horsepower, the speed the car carried through the turns, and even the brake package. There is so much downforce on the car," Pilgrim said. "You hear road course drivers talk about driving stock cars and comparing it to old technology, but I must say it was quite impressive. I was pleasantly surprised with everything. Going down the straightaway, I had a big smile on my face."
I remember Dale told me he wanted to put me in a car for a road course race, and he seemed serious, but I'm one of those people who is a bit of a pragmatist. You don't say anything to anyone in case it never happens, but you're thinking, 'Man, that would be so cool.'
A native of Nottingham, England, Pilgrim became a U.S. citizen in 1998 after he had been racing for 14 years. Currently competing in the SCCA World Challenge series for Team Cadillac, the 23-year veteran has 55 wins and five championships in 10 series.
Now, though, he's trying something completely different. Pilgrim says he smiles simply thinking about the opportunity. His car owner, meanwhile, isn't the slightest bit worried about his driver's inexperience in a stock car.
Asked whether he paid close attention to the test session that led to Pilgrim's approval, Earnhardt said it wasn't a priority.
"I just called him and said, 'How fast are you going?' I don't really monitor it too much," Earnhardt said. "I trust Andy and know that he's not going to do anything ridiculous and he's not only talented, he's got it figured out as far as equipment and how to take care of it.
"I knew they would go down there and do decent, and they ran really good. I didn't have many doubts that he wouldn't. It's just like Ron [Fellows] and them guys hopping in these cars and going right to work. That's what I expected, and that's what I got."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Dale Earnhardt once promised Andy Pilgrim a shot at driving for his race team. Six years later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is honoring that promise in the Busch Series, writes Mark Ashenfelter.