Brantley Gilbert knew all about Dale Earnhardt -- Sr. and Jr. -- long before he ever even met the younger NASCAR star.
"My dad and uncle were huge fans of Dale's dad's. So I keep it in the family, and I'm a huge fan of his dad's, too," Gilbert explained to me when we caught up on his tour bus before he performed a pre-race concert at the NASCAR Geico 400 Chase for the Sprint Cup on Sunday (Sept. 15) at Chicagoland Speedway.
Gilbert said the Earnhardt family was a big presence in his tiny hometown, especially a place called Potts Farm. It's the very same one he wrote about in Jason Aldean's "Dirt Road Anthem."
"They've got pictures up of Dale's dad when he'd come there," Gilbert said. "And he's holding chickens in the chicken house. Then there was this little track by my house called Peach State in Jefferson, Ga., and he'd run his car on it, too."
As for Earnhardt Jr., Gilbert struck up a friendship with him when they met to film a commercial for Mountain Dew.
"When you meet him, he's a good dude," Gilbert said. "He reminded me a lot of people I grew up with. He's kind of to himself and not real flamboyant, and he just does his thing. He is who he is. I admire that.
"It's real easy in a lot of businesses for your head to swell up, and you become somebody else. So that's one of my main goals in the business -- to continue to be me."
Much like Earnhardt's loyal NASCAR fans, so many of Gilbert's fans asked him for photos and autographs while he was walking through the garages at the speedway.
"Those people are the lifeblood of what we do," he said. "We don't have fans. We have friends. A friend is someone who supports you. And these people are buying tickets at outrageous ticket prices. If that ain't support, I don't know what is.
"We've got a lot of friends. We take care of them because they take care of us."