1. A silver lining
On a Sunday in March 1997, the Truck Series raced at Homestead Miami Speedway. Late in the event, John Nemechek, the younger brother of Cup driver Joe Nemechek, spun in the first corner and slammed into the wall with the driver’s side. He was taken to the hospital with severe injuries. The following Friday, he passed away.
That June, Joe and his wife welcomed a son, who they named John Hunter in honor of the uncle he would never meet.
But the tribute got even better that fall. In November, the Xfinity Series rolled into Homestead for its final race of the season. It was also the first NASCAR event at the track since the tragedy-marred Truck race in March. As if channeling emotion and motivation into horsepower, Joe dominated, leading more than half of the race and clinching the victory.
The post-race scene was heartbreaking but uplifting: Joe holding his young son in victory lane, savoring happiness at the track that had brought so much sorrow just eight months earlier. – Frank Velat
2. True racers
For the first time in over 40 years, NASCAR brought racing back to a dirt track in 2013, with the inaugural Eldora Dirt Derby for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. That in itself was a feel-good story. This event was scheduled under the lights on a Wednesday, complete with heat races and a last chance race before the feature. But before the feature even started, one of the most feel-good moments in NASCAR history occurred, a singular moment which arguably made NASCAR’s return to dirt an instant success and one of the most highly anticipated races every year.
Long identified as a backmarker, Norm Benning had found little success as a journeyman NASCAR racer. A veteran, Benning had competed sporadically across NASCAR and ARCA since the late 1980s. With a crowded entry list due to the magnitude of the race, there was little hope for Benning to qualify and subsequently ended up in the last chance race.
In dramatic fashion, “Stormin Norm” found himself in the last transfer spot facing menacing challenges from Clay Greenfield and Jimmy Weller III. Over the last three laps, Greenfield and Benning made hard contact fighting tooth and nail to get into the biggest truck race of the year. Plastered across television sets across the nation, Benning held strong despite numerous door slams from Greenfield and crossed the line side by side, beating his challenger by a nose to get into the biggest race of his career.
With the crowd roaring, a stunned Benning, an owner-driver with an all-volunteer crew, found himself speechless as crew members from the biggest teams in the sport selflessly rushed over to his machine to repair his battered truck. Track owner and race promoter Tony Stewart told Benning shortly afterward that he “made the event an instant success.” One couldn’t help but smile as the turn of events unfolded. Without Benning’s grit to transfer, the annual truck race at Eldora may never have enjoyed the instant success it experienced. – Zach Gillispie
3. Emerging from tragedy
You can’t have this list without including Steve Park winning at Rockingham Speedway in a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car the week after we lost Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick winning in Earnhardt’s car two weeks later or Dale Earnhardt Jr. conquering the track that claimed his father’s life in the series return to Daytona International Speedway. 2001 started off with a tremendous loss, but the rest of the season had some truly special moments. – Michael Massie
4. Brotherhood, blood or not
I’ve written about this moment before, but it has always stood out to me. In the midst of a 10-win season, a 10th-place finish probably wouldn’t be terribly memorable, especially at a track where success came often and seemingly easily. But Jimmie Johnson was grinning from ear to ear in victory lane after a race he hadn’t won. This night belonged to old friend Casey Mears, who had just taken his first and only Cup win.
What stands out here is the pure emotion between friends and teammates. Johnson couldn’t have looked more excited had he won himself, and Mears, who had held his emotion in check until that moment, couldn’t keep back the tears as Johnson sprinted onto the scene. In a world of rivalries and drivers accused of being bland and robotic, it was a moment of raw emotion. Of course, it lasted about three minutes, and then Johnson got busy toilet-papering Mears’ motorhome while Mears and his team celebrated. – Amy Henderson
5. The right words for a young fan
Back in the mid-80s, Tim Richmond was a big fan favorite at Pocono where he’d had a lot of success. During driver intros, Richmond was walking toward the stage and noticed a little boy trying to get closer but unable to do so because of the crowd. He reached over and picked the kid up. With the microphone live he asked the kid who his favorite driver was. Without missing a beat the little boy replied: “Dale Earnhardt.” Naturally, everyone cracked up. Hearing the laughter, the little kid must have felt he’d messed up. Tim leaned over and told the kid “Dale Earnhardt is my favorite driver too.” – Matt McLaughlin