Ned Yost was sitting in the basement den at his home in rural Georgia on Dec. 8, 2000, watching the annual NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Banquet on ESPN.
Seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt finished second to Bobby Labonte that season and gave a five-minute speech.
Earnhardt wrapped it up by saying, “I think I’ll go deer hunting now.”
Yost, who at the time was an assistant coach for the Atlanta Braves, perked up.
“I was sitting in my den all by myself, and I laughed and said, ‘Ha-ha, I’m going with you,’” he recalled.
Yost, who became the Royals’ manager in 2010, met Earnhardt on a hunting trip in the mid-1980s, and the two became close friends.
During the 1994 baseball strike, Yost even served as Earnhardt’s rehydration engineer for the final nine races of the season as “The Intimidator” won his seventh and final Cup Series championship.
Yost said Wednesday that he’s got “about a million” Earnhardt-related hunting stories, but his favorite is about that trip.
Yost and Earnhardt both flew to Iowa the day after that awards banquet, which would be Earnhardt’s last as it turns out.
Dale arrived before Yost, but he ran into town to pick up some supplies. When he returned, Yost had arrived and was sitting at the kitchen table with renowned hunter and outdoors personality Don Kisky.
“I could hear Dale come in,” said Yost, who wears a No. 3 uniform as a tribute to Earnhardt. “He came in through the front door, walked through the living room and came to the kitchen where we were sitting. He was behind me, he put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, so I hugged his head … and we just had a great time.”
That trip was interrupted by a 16-inch snowstorm, which Earnhardt wanted to brave to honor a sponsorship appearance for Budweiser.
“We kept telling him, ‘Dale, there’s 16 inches of snow. You can’t go. You need to stay here,’” Yost said.
An argument ensued with Earnhardt yelling at Bill Jordan, another notable outdoorsman who was on the trip.
“It got a little awkward … and all the sudden it got real quiet in there,” Yost said.
He broke the silence by hollering at Earnhardt, “The only reason he’s saying that. There’s only one reason we don’t want you to go. Man, we love you. You know what, we love you. We don’t want you to go. We love you.”
Earnhardt grinned ear to ear, but from the corner where he was seated, Jordan piped up, “Well, I don’t feel the love.”
That was the last time Yost saw Earnhardt, who died two months later in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
“After that, the one thing that gave me any peace at all was that I got the opportunity before that happened to tell him that I loved him,” Yost said. “So, that was our best hunting trip.”
Yost still follows NASCAR closely, but he estimates that he’s only attended two races since Earnhardt’s death. He’s involved in an online fantasy league with friends and there’s also a friendly clubhouse every week amongst the Royals.
Checking the race results is one of Yost’s top priorities after his finishes his Sunday postgame press conferences.
“Generally, the first thing I do is sit down and see who won our pool,” he said.
He started Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., last week, a savvy move as Junior rode to his sixth victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
“It was great to see Dale Jr. run so well there,” Yost said. “That’s always been traditionally one of his good tracks. I was proud and happy for him to win that race.”
Fresh off guiding the Royals to the American League pennant and the franchise’s first World Series appearance in nearly three decades, Yost spoke at Richard Childress Racing’s preseason banquet in Charlotte a few weeks before the Daytona 500 in February.
“I did it about eight years ago,” Yost said. “They get the entire organization together — everybody, drivers and all 575 people. They have a luncheon right before they go to Daytona, and they always have a speaker come in. They’ve had guys who’ve walked on the moon and things like that, but they asked if I’d go do it again this year. Knowing Richard and a lot of those guys at RCR, I jumped at the chance. It was fantastic.”