Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Joe Gibbs during Redskins training camp in 2005. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement that he was leaving his late father’s company, Dale Earnhardt Inc., to join another team was the biggest story in motor sports in the spring of 2007. NASCAR’s most popular and marketable driver ultimately signed a five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports, but it wasn’t for Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s lack of trying to convince Earnhardt to join Joe Gibbs Racing.

During a recent interview with Gibbs on his “Dale Jr. Download” podcast, Earnhardt and co-host Mike Davis recalled Earnhardt’s few weeks as a NASCAR free agent 12 years ago. Earnhardt’s older sister, Kelley, who handled his finances, met with several potential suitors during that time. Earnhardt joined her for a couple of visits, including one with Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl champion Redskins coach who founded Joe Gibbs Racing in 1992, shortly before he retired from the NFL for the first time. While preparing for the fourth season of his second stint as Redskins coach in 2007, Gibbs invited Earnhardt and his sister to Snyder’s home.

“I’m thinking, that’s awesome,” said Earnhardt, a die-hard Redskins fan. “I don’t think I had ever met Dan before. We go out there, and I remember when we got there, we went in his backyard and we’re sitting around this table and they had these tomatoes — stuffed tomatoes with pimento cheese in them, and they were amazing. I couldn’t stop eating them. I couldn’t pay attention to what Joe and them were saying, because I was wanting to eat more tomatoes.”

“I’m trying to give him millions of dollars, and he’s eating tomatoes,” Gibbs joked.

“Instead of walking away with a contract, I walked away with a recipe for these stuffed tomatoes,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt, 32 at the time, hadn’t raced for anyone but his family’s company to that point in his career, so negotiating a contract was new to him. Between bites of stuffed tomatoes, Earnhardt reviewed a term sheet provided by Gibbs, who suggested he and Kelley take a few minutes to discuss it privately in another room.

“I said to Kelley: ‘What’s on that paper. What’s the number?’" Earnhardt said. “And she told me. I said, ‘We got to get out of here.' This is way bigger than I ever even imagined. This made my head explode. I said: ‘I can’t decide this today. We got to go home and talk about this.’ My reaction was to run in the other direction. It was all so big. You got to remember, when I was racing at DEI, everything was so small. That’s the way it was. I didn’t know any better. It was just way too much coming at me. I’m with Joe Gibbs, my hero, we’re at the owner of the Redskins’ house, they’re wanting to pay me a lot of money, and I just needed to step back and get a bigger view of it.”

So Earnhardt returned to the room where Gibbs and Snyder were waiting, thanked the Redskins’ Hall of Fame coach for his generous offer and said he needed some more time to consider it.

“Dan looks at me and goes, ‘What, you ain’t signing it?'" Earnhardt said. “I think Dan’s so used to players walking in the room, here’s the contract, they sign it and they leave. I was like: ‘No, Mr. Snyder, we’re going to go home, have a conversation and sort this out. We got a lot to talk about.’”

Snyder, who had signed plenty of big-name free agents in his eight years as Redskins owner to that point, had no intentions of letting Earnhardt leave without a deal.

“He is in the business of taking other smaller, failing businesses or older businesses and revitalizing them,” Earnhardt continued. “He was in the middle of doing this with some restaurant chain and started offering me percentages of this company. He was like, ‘Yep, it’s not worth a lot now, but down the road it’s going to be worth X amount of dollars.’ He’s, like, trying to tack that on to the agreement. . . . I’m spinning my tires as fast as I can to get out of that building. It was just so overwhelming. It was like winning the lottery. You freak out.”

That restaurant chain, Gibbs reminded Earnhardt and Davis, was Johnny Rockets, the oldies-themed burger joint Snyder bought earlier that year and would sell in 2013.

“That shows you what kind of guy Dan was,” Gibbs said. “I had not talked to Dan at all about doing anything like that. When you walked out and didn’t take what we gave you, which we thought was a heck of a deal, Dan just started in. He was going to get Junior to sign that thing before he left. He was going to do that for me. He would’ve probably thrown a chunk of the Redskins at him if he had asked for it.”

“If Dan had offered 1 percent of the Skins, then he would’ve had a deal right then and there,” Earnhardt said. “That’s easy to say today.”

Instead, Earnhardt signed with Hendrick Motorsports, a partnership that lasted through his retirement from full-time racing after the 2017 season.

“It was a big disappointment for us,” Gibbs said. “We made a full-bore run, I’ll say that. We gave it our all.”

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