DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 12:  Stacy Compton #92 drives a Dodge Untrepid for Melling Racing talks with his crew chief Chad Knaus in the garage during the Daytona 500 Speedweeks on February 12, 2001 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Robert Laberge | Getty Images

Where are they now?: How Stacy Compton caught the attention of Gordon, Wallace and Waltrip

Even though he started racing go-karts at 6 years old, Stacy Compton was a late bloomer by NASCAR standards, skipping over both national feeder series to make his NASCAR debut in the Cup Series at 29 years old.

While other rookies might be intimidated or awestruck by guys like Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and others around him, that wasn’t the case with Compton. In fact, he looked like he’d been doing it for years in his first-ever start, at Martinsville Speedway, in April 1996.

“Back then you could still make it on talent,” Compton told NASCAR.com. “I felt like there was a chance if you got in front of the right people, that you could make it happen. To get to Martinsville, I mortgaged my home, my body shop, seven rental properties, all to generate enough money for that one shot, for that one race.

“And it paid off. If it wouldn’t have, I would have filed for bankruptcy, there’s no doubt. That was the first time I’d ever sat in anything with that kind of horsepower or radial tires, or ever even made a pit stop.”

RELATED: Career stats for Stacy Compton

But Compton definitely made his presence known immediately during practice and qualifying.

“Rusty Wallace walked up to me after qualifying, poked me in the chest and said, ‘You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but you don’t have a clue what you just did,’ ” Compton recalled after qualifying ninth.

16 Feb 2001: Stacy Compton #92 drives a Dodge Untrepid for Melling Racing sits in his car during the Daytona 500 Speedweeks at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey /Allsport
Jon Ferrey | Allsport

He chuckled when he remembered his reply to Wallace: “I’m like, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ I didn’t have a clue how hard it was to make the show, I didn’t realize what we were doing.

“Then during practice, I went out and ran Darrell Waltrip down and passed him. He came over afterward and said, ‘Boy, what are you doing? We don’t race each other in practice.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

Waltrip was so struck by Compton’s racing naiveté that he paused for a few seconds before quipping, “Let me tell you what, you looked pretty darn good.”

“We got a lot of attention that day,” Compton chuckled.

He ran in the top 12 for much of the first half of the race until brake failure three-quarters of the way into the 500-lap event ended his day early. Still, he proved he could run with NASCAR’s big dogs.

Which leads to another story Compton related: “Then a couple weeks later, we were walking through the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Jeff Gordon said, ‘What you did at Martinsville, it was pretty impressive. I really look forward to running against you one day. If you ever need anything, you come look me up.’ ”

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Compton grew up in Hurt, Virginia — just south of Lynchburg — and never left, commuting back and forth to Charlotte, North Carolina, during his NASCAR career. Even today, the now 54-year-old still calls the little hamlet of Hurt (population 1,300) home, and it’s also the base of what has become a very successful post-racing career selling residential and commercial real estate.

The married father of two began selling real estate in his 20s, essentially preparing for what he’d do once his racing days were over.

“When you step away from racing, there is no NFL pension, there’s nothing,” Compton said. “So when I was racing, I started fooling around with real estate with rental properties and some different things like housing developments and stuff like that.

“When both of my girls started school, they couldn’t go with me. It wasn’t fun anymore. At the time, I was working for ESPN and racing. And I think the last year I did that, I was home 302 days. At that point, I said, ‘I need to be a dad versus running around in circles.’

“It just felt like the right time. I wanted to spend more time with my girls. They had gotten to the age that I felt like they needed a dad worse than I needed to race.”

When he started racing go-karts at age 6, Compton took to it both naturally and quickly, winning a number of championships up and down the East Coast, from North and South Carolina to Georgia and all the way up to New York state. From there, he moved on to late-model racing in his teens and into his 20s at short tracks in and around Virginia, at one point winning 36 races in seven seasons.

He had grown up a NASCAR fan, but even back then, the cost was too prohibitive. He couldn’t get proper sponsorship and felt his NASCAR dream would remain that until he just decided to go for broke when he geared up for that first Cup race at Martinsville in 1996.

The gamble paid off, and he moved into the now-Camping World Truck Series full-time from 1997-99, capturing the only two wins of his NASCAR career in 1998.

“I’ll never forget the first win, at Portland, in (Greg) Biffle’s backyard,” Compton said. “We battled and battled, and Greg and I have become friends. To be able to go up there and win my first race was a dream. Then, later on in the same season, to go to Topeka and win on a road course, not being a road-course ringer per se, that was a big highlight for me, too.”

RELATED: Watch 1999 Truck race at Portland in a NASCAR Throwback replay

The next season, it looked like Compton finally had everything together to win the championship. And for the first half of the season, it looked like that would happen, as he either led or was second in the standings.

“But we ran out of money and that dropped us to fourth in the points and that was that,” Compton said.

But there was something that came out of that same 1999 season that helped cushion the blow of coming so close to the title. Upon capturing one of six poles that season, a stranger tapped Compton on the shoulder at Michigan International Speedway.

“I thought it was someone wanting an autograph,” Compton admitted. “Instead, it was a guy who handed me his business card. He said, ‘If you’re interested, call me.’ He then turned around and walks off. I just stuck it in my pocket, went to the media center to do an interview, and while I was waiting, I pulled the card out, looked at it and it’s Mark Melling (son of former Cup team owner Harry Melling). As soon as I got out of the media center, I called him up and asked him, ‘What do you mean, if I’m interested?’ He said, ‘Do you want to drive my Cup car next year?’ And I was like, ‘Heck, yeah.’ ”

During Compton’s second season of driving for Melling (2001), they hired a young crew chief by the name of Chad Knaus, who lasted just one season before becoming crew chief for a new upstart young driver by the name of Jimmie Johnson. The pair would go on to win 81 races and seven championships.

9 Feb 2001: Stacy Compton #92 drives a Dodge Untrepid for Melling Racing speeds down the track during the Daytona 500 Speedweeks at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey /Allsport
Jon Ferrey | Allsport

“Chad came to our team after being a fabricator for Ray Evernham,” Compton said. “I told Mark after about 30 minutes with Chad, I said, ‘I found our crew chief.’ Chad was probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with in my entire life. Obviously, he’s proven that through the years. He was really sharp.”

RELATED: Chad Knaus through the years

Because Melling’s team was underfunded, Compton lasted just two seasons before racing for just over a half-season for A.J. Foyt’s Cup team before the duo parted ways. Compton would then move to what is now known as the Xfinity Series, where he raced full time from 2002-06, before returning to the Truck Series from 2007-10.

Compton gave Cup racing one more try in 2012, starting his own team, but qualifying for just one of the four races he attempted prompted him to finally call it a career in NASCAR.

“We were thinking, we can do a couple of start and parks and generate enough money to where we can go run two or three or four races and maybe get some sponsorship,” Compton said. “I hadn’t been in a Cup car in nearly 10 years and yet we went out and qualified and got the car in the show, knowing we were going to run 20 laps and park it.

“I had a fan walk up to me and said, ‘You know, you ended your NASCAR career on a good note. Do you want to be remembered for start-and-parks?’ I told him, ‘You’ve got a good point. I didn’t want to be remembered for that.’ The start-and-park thing just wasn’t for me, I’m way too competitive. If we couldn’t be competitive, honestly, I just didn’t want to be a part of it.”

He would subsequently go back to racing late models part-time in Virginia, but that didn’t last long.

“Then my younger daughter Izzy (short for Isabella) started barrel racing horses, and I said, ‘You know what, it’s time. It’s their time. I’ve had my time.’ She is probably one of the best riders I’ve ever witnessed. She’s incredibly competitive, and she can ride anything. So pretty much every weekend now for us, we’re at a barrel race somewhere with our daughters.”

Even so, Compton has the desire to still race again today.

“If Kyle Busch would call me like he called Greg (Biffle) to be in his truck, heck yeah, absolutely, I’d be there in a heartbeat,” Compton said with a big laugh.

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Compton welcomes talking with fans about his racing career, one that he said he has very few regrets.

LEBANON, TN - AUGUST 09: Stacy Compton, driver of the #4 BobFrensley.com Chrysler Jeep Dodge, waits for the start of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Toyota Tundra 200 at Nashville Superspeedway on August 9, 2008 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images for NASCAR) | Getty Images
Grant Halverson | Getty Images

“I was fortunate enough to get in on talent and got some people’s attention,” Compton said. “We never were truly funded like we needed to be. I wish we could have been because I think I could have stayed in the sport a little bit longer as far as the Cup side. But look, I was fortunate to do it as long as I did. I met some great people, made some tremendous friends that turned into family.

“We were probably closer than a lot of real families. You know, it was fun, I enjoyed it, I miss it. I still miss the competition and I miss going to the race track.”

But there’s one thing he didn’t miss that he’s very proud of: “What I didn’t miss, I didn’t miss a single first of anything my daughters did. So, mission accomplished for that.”

Compton tried to steer his daughters away from racing, but he adds with a laugh, sometimes he questions that move.

“I said I was going to keep them out of go-karts because as expensive as it is, I thought horses would be a better way to go. Man, I was so wrong. I should have put them in a go-kart or quarter-midgets a long time ago because there isn’t nothing more expensive than barrel horses.”

Growing serious once again, Compton then concluded, “I enjoyed the sport, I really did. I was fortunate enough to be one of the few that has been able to go to Cup and be there for several years. I’m just thankful I was able to do that.”

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The Stacy Compton File:

* Age: 54

* Hometown: Hurt, Virginia

* Personal: Stacy and his wife Vickie have two daughters, Olivia (17 years old) and Isabella (14 years old).

Career highlights:

* NASCAR Cup career: 89 races, 0 wins, 0 top-five and 1 top-10 finish. Also two poles. Best season finish: 33rd (2001).

* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 173 races, 0 wins, 11 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes. Also 1 pole. Best season finish: 9th (2002).

* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 158 races, 2 wins, 26 top-five, 65 top-10 finishes. Also 9 poles. Best season finish: 4th (1999).

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Mike Bliss, Doug Richert, Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken SchraderShawna RobinsonSam Hornish Jr.Bobby Labonte, Greg BiffleRicky RuddDarrell WaltripMark MartinMarcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.