Columns & Blogs

Daniel Hemric idolized Dale Earnhardt as a kid. Now he wants to drive like him

When Daniel Hemric was growing up in Kannapolis, dreaming of becoming a NASCAR driver, Friday afternoons were hard. A long week of school would be nearly over, but the last few minutes of his final class seemed to last forever.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of school on Friday,” Hemric said, “to go back to the track on Friday night.”

Hemric was in kindergarten at the time.

Now, more than 20 years later, Hemric drives the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. He will enter Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as a strong contender for rookie of the year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series.

There aren’t many homegrown racers in NASCAR anymore. But Hemric is a throwback to the days when two-thirds of a Cup field might hail from one of the Carolinas. He estimates he has watched about 100 races of one type or another from the grandstands at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now he will navigate the track himself, trying to figure out how to get his first Cup win.

Hemric grew up in the same hometown as one of NASCAR’s royal families – the Earnhardts – and cheered them on from afar as a kid.

Said Hemric: “Watching the town I lived in rally around this guy who was the same deal – a blue-collar guy who kept his head down, and worked no matter what, and built… this huge name for himself, it was always kind of a close-to-home reminder that if you applied yourself with the same work ethic, that you could have the same results.”

NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric grew up in Kannapolis as a fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr., who were both from the same town. Jeff Siner

‘Figure it out on your own’

Growing up, Hemric himself ran in far different circles. While Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jr. dominated racing headlines, Hemric and his family tried to make a little money (or at least not lose too much) on racing’s fringes.

“My mother and my stepfather were who I primarily lived with,” Hemric said. “They were both service writers at the local dealerships — my stepfather worked for the local Hendrick Toyota, and my mother worked for the local Hendrick Honda store. So we didn’t have a lot of means to do this racing thing.

“We raced go-karts and Bandoleros all the way up until I was about 12 years old … By then, it was pretty evident that the writing was on the wall, that we cannot afford to do this … My family pretty much told me, ‘If you’re going to do this racing thing, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own.’”

So Hemric, then in middle school, started trying his best to figure out how to find enough money from sponsors or generous friends to race.

“Whether it was finding somebody to buy a set of tires or somebody who had race cars but needed a driver,” Hemric said. “... And if that meant going to the shop to help work on the thing – to build it -- I did whatever I had to do to make sure I stayed on the racing scene.”

By the time his sophomore year at South Rowan High had ended, Hemric was traveling around the country to race on a lot of tracks you probably haven’t heard of but that might get him a shot at being “seen.” He started homeschooling as a high school junior, got his high school diploma and never thought seriously about college. He already knew what he wanted to do, after all – become a race-car driver.

“I had pretty much made up my mind by the time I was eight,” Hemric said.

Siphoning gas after a win

As he grew older, Hemric drove every type of car he could. He became proficient in Legends cars and had a big win in the 2010 Legends Million event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 19 then, and he had so little gas in the Honda Civic he drove to the track that he knew it wouldn’t make it home that night without some help.

Hemric won the $250,000 first-place prize that night, and he got to keep a third of the money. After the Victory Lane celebration, where he did a backflip that would have made Carl Edwards proud, Hemric had to figure out his gas problem. It turned out his race car had a little fuel left, so he siphoned it out and put it into his Honda. Then he and his crew drove to Steak ‘n’ Shake for an impromptu 3 a.m. party.

Daniel Hemric performs a back flip off of his car after winning the Legends Million race in 2010 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hemric then siphoned some gas from his racecar so he could get home that night. JEFF SINER JEFF SINER - jsiner@charlotteobs

If Hemric’s life were a movie, that victory would have been immediately followed by his big break. But it wasn’t. Instead, he kept scrabbling around racing’s edges, while a number of drivers from his own generation and even several years younger (one of them was Charlotte’s William Byron, only 21 and considered a rising star) passed him on the way to racing’s big leagues.

Hemric’s girlfriend at the time – Kenzie Ruston, who is now his wife – also seemed to have a brighter future driving than he did.

Said Hemric: “There were times where it was: ‘Does what I’m doing make sense? Is this going to lead to anything?’”

Hemric plowed on. He eventually got a job driving in NASCAR’s truck series, which led to a job driving in the Xfinity series. That, in turn, led to this year’s job driving for Childress — who famously fielded the cars that the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove to six of his seven Cup championships — in NASCAR’s top series as a 28-year-old Cup rookie.

Hemric hasn’t won a race in any of those series, but he did make the final four in both 2017 and 2018 series in his Xfinity car. He ranks a mediocre 26th this season in Cup points after 12 starts, with one top-5 finish (he was fifth at Talladega).

Driver Daniel Hemric races down the front stretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hemric’s No. 8 Chevrolet is painted gold in honor of owner Richard Childress’s 50 years in NASCAR. Jeff Siner

A more famous Hemric

So far Hemric hasn’t eclipsed the most famous athletic member of his family. His great-great uncle was Dickie Hemric, a star basketball player for Wake Forest in the 1950s who remains the ACC’s all-time leading rebounder. Dickie Hemric held the ACC career scoring title for more than 50 years before being eclipsed first by Duke’s J.J. Redick and then by North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough.

Daniel Hemric (who is 5-foot-9) had never heard of 6-foot-6 power forward Dickie Hemric until he went to a basketball game at Wake Forest with fellow drivers Austin and Ty Dillon a few years ago.

“And there’s my last name, hanging in the rafters,” Daniel Hemric said. “How did my family forget to tell me about this? It was a really cool story.”

The two Hemrics never met before Dickie Hemric died in 2017, at age 83. Daniel Hemric regrets that he missed that opportunity.

But Hemric hopes he can find others, in racing. And if he were to beat the odds and somehow get his first Cup win at his home track in Charlotte on Sunday?

Said Hemric: “To win at this level, after watching my childhood hero Earnhardt on this track… how cool is that? That’s what dreams are made of.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.