Dale Earnhardt Jr. loved watching the late Buddy Baker drive his “Gray Ghost” Oldsmobile to victory in the 1980 Daytona 500.
“It’s my all-time favorite paint scheme,” Earnhardt said of Baker’s car.
Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy will resemble Baker’s Gray Ghost in Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, a race that will feature “throwback” paint schemes on more than 90 percent of the field.
Unfortunately for Earnhardt, he won’t be around to drive the car. He’s missing the rest of the season with concussion symptoms. Jeff Gordon, his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, will fill in.
But the Gray Ghost – along with several other classic paint schemes mostly from the 1975-84 era -- will still be resurrected.
Part of the mystique of Baker’s Gray Ghost was its ability to blend into the color on the racetrack. Other drivers complained they couldn’t see it coming, so NASCAR ordered Baker (who died in 2015) to put Day-Glo stickers on the front of the car to make it more visible.
Earnhardt Jr. said he would have welcomed having to put day-glo stickers on the car if it was so mandated (something NASCAR won’t do).
“That would be a pat on the back, a compliment,” he said. “If the nose is gray, people would be talking about it and not see it coming. I remember that story. That’s what they did with Buddy.”
Pit crews are also outfitted in classic uniforms. Some drivers, like Matt DiBenedetto, have ’70s-style facial hair.
It’s just overall a really cool atmosphere.
“All the cars are neat,” said Carl Edwards, who won the 2015 Southern 500 and is driving the paint scheme of the car of Tony Stewart’s rookie season. “I mean, it’s cool and what’s really neat to see is the crew members in all the different uniforms and the old trucker hats and it’s just cool.
“It’s a fun weekend and now I get a little more time to walk about, look at everything, but just all of it’s pretty cool. Even the fans are walking up and got old Cale Yarborough t-shirts on and stuff like that. It’s just overall a really cool atmosphere.”
Here are the stories behind five other retro paint schemes to watch for Sunday:
▪ Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy will be painted in the gold and red colors of Bobby Allison’s car from 1970-73. Stewart said he remembers the first time he saw Allison race at a dirt track in Indiana, one of his earliest and best memories in racing.
Darlington brought back the “throwback” concept after it worked out successfully in 2015.
▪ Jeffrey Earnhardt’s No. 32 Chevy will feature the 1970s blue-and-yellow paint scheme of his grandfather, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
▪ Greg Biffle’s No. 16 Ford will look like the orange-and-white Hooters car that Alan Kulwicki drove to the 1992 Cup championship.
▪ Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy will also be painted in Earnhardt Sr.’s blue and yellow. But this is from Earnhardt’s rookie season of 1979, when David Pearson filled in for four races. Earnhardt was injured at Pocono, with two broken collarbones, a concussion and severe neck and chest bruises. He went on to win rookie of the year honors anyway. That was also before Earnhardt’s car was the No. 3. He drove the No. 2 for the first three years of his career, switched to No. 15 in 1982 and ’83 before going with the familiar No. 3 in 1984 when he hooked up with owner Richard Childress.
▪ Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota will be painted in the orange and yellow of Tide detergent, which entered the sport in 1987 and is credited with helping broaden the sport’s appeal to women. Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Craven and Ricky Rudd all drove what was known as the Tide Ride.
There will also be a retro feel to the NBC broadcasting booth, where Ken Squier, Dale Jarrett and Ned Jarrett will call a portion of the race. Take a close look at Squier’s necktie when he’s on: It’s the one he wore when he called the 1979 Daytona 500.