The Champ Behind The Champ
by Tom Jensen January 19, 2023
Kirk Shelmerdine was crew chief and front-tire changer for four of Dale Earnhardt’s seven championships
In NASCAR racing, drivers deservedly get most of the attention and much of the credit for on-track success.
But winning NASCAR races and championships, especially at the premier series level, is truly a collaborative effort with the at-track team leader most often being the crew chief.
Succeeding as driver requires physical talent and dedication. Succeeding as a crew chief requires the knowledge and intellect of an engineer, the organizational and motivational skills of an NFL coach and the nerves of a riverboat gambler. Being a crew chief is one of, if not the, most challenging jobs in the sport.
The unique skillset required to be a championship crew chief is what makes Kirk Shelmerdine so special. One of three inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2023 along with Matt Kenseth and Hershel McGriff, Shelmerdine won four premier series championships at crew chief and front-tire changer for Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010).
To put those four championships in context, only two crew chiefs have more premier series titles than Shelmerdine: Dale Inman (Class of 2012) has eight and Chad Knaus, who will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration in 2024, has seven.
A native of Philadelphia, Shelmerdine figured out early on that he was a lot more interested in making race cars go fast than he was going to college.
A family friend who worked in NASCAR helped Shelmerdine land his first job as crew chief for independent team owner/driver James Hylton, a position he took on at the ripe old age of 19. In his first season atop the pit box, Shelmerdine flashed obvious potential, helping lead Hylton to a seventh-place points finish in 1977.
When fellow independent Richard Childress (Class of 2017) went looking for a new chief to help him improve his performance, Hylton enthusiastically recommended Shelmerdine for the job. And so, in 1980, Shelmerdine was hired by Richard Childress Racing, where he would thrive for the next 13 years.
In 1980, Shelmerdine’s first season at RCR, Childress himself was the team’s driver. Midway through the ’81 season, Childress decided to hire a young driver named Dale Earnhardt, who already had one championship to his credit.
While the trio of Childress, Earnhardt and Shelmerdine bonded in their first go round as a team, the owner knew he lacked the funding to give Earnhardt the resources he needed to win consistently.
As a result, Earnhardt left RCR to drive for Bud Moore (Class of 2011) in 1982 and ’83, with his seat filled by a young Virginian named Ricky Rudd. With Shelmerdine preparing the cars and calling the races, Rudd qualified on the pole for the first three races of the 1983 season, including the Daytona 500. That same year, Rudd gave RCR its first win on the old Riverside International Raceway Road Course in Southern California and followed up with a late-season victory at Martinsville Speedway.
While Rudd’s performance lifted RCR in 1982-83, the team reached an entirely new level after Earnhardt’s permanent return in 1984. In the nine years that Shelmerdine was Earnhardt’s crew chief and front-tire changer, “The Intimidator” won four of his seven career premier series championships and 44 of his 76 race victories.
Earnhardt’s best years were with Shelmerdine, most notably in 1987, when the driver won a career-high 11 races, including six of the first eight, and his third of seven championships.
In addition to being crew chief for Earnhardt, Shelmerdine was also the team’s front-tire changer and the leader of the No. 3 pit crew, a brash and hard-working unit initially known as "The Junkyard Dogs” and later re-branded as “The Flying Aces” after GM Goodwrench came on board as the team’s new primary sponsor in 1988.
For four consecutive years from 1985-88, The Junkyard Dogs won the annual Unocal 76 World Pit Crew Competition, an event that carried with it huge bragging rights for the winning team.
Following the 1992 season, Shelmerdine voluntarily stepped away from the high-pressure job as a crew chief for a multi-time champion in the NASCAR premier series. Turning his attention to driving, Shelmerdine made 41 career starts in NASCAR National Series races. He also won three races in the ARCA Menards Series.
But it is Shelmerdine’s four championships as a crew chief that cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats and earned him a well-deserved place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2023.