A legendary NASCAR driver met an outgoing girl on a trip to Columbus in 2015. Three years later, an extraordinary friendship has taken root.

The nurse's station on the ninth floor of Nationwide Children's Hospital is crowded with people awaiting the arrival of Dale Earnhardt Jr. just before noon on Aug. 2. Twelve-year-old Maddie Delaney, clad in the retired NASCAR driver's No. 88 jersey, sits in her neon pink-framed wheelchair next to her parents, Nickole and Kevin. Junior rounds the corner accompanied by an entourage equal to the crowd. All eyes are on him.

It's his fifth visit to the hospital, thanks to his relationship with racing sponsor Nationwide. He's here for the unveiling of the renovated Dale and Amy Earnhardt Activity Room, where he met Maddie in 2015 during his first tour. She was born with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy and was recovering from back surgery at the time, and they bonded over video games. (“I lost miserably,” Maddie says.) The kids Dale meets on these visits are often too shy to come out of their shells, he says. Not Maddie. She was eager to talk, and they clicked easily.

A couple of weeks after Dale's August visit, Maddie recalls their initial meeting. “I wasn't like, ‘Oh my gosh, he's famous,' and all that crap,” she says, then she hedges a little. “At first I was, but not really now.” Inside the Delaneys' Galena home, she readies her backpack for the first day of seventh grade while her parents discuss her years-long friendship with the beloved racecar driver.

“They have this really strange, special bond that you wouldn't expect them to have, but they do,” Nickole says. Maddie surprised Dale by showing up for his second hospital visit for a rematch—she got revenge in a boxing video game—and eventually she and Dale began hanging out elsewhere. Among the Delaneys' trips: selling one of his cars at the annual Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Arizona, cheering for Junior at the Quaker State 400 in Kentucky and relaxing at the sprawling North Carolina estate of Dale and his wife, Amy.

At Nationwide Children's in early August, Dale talks fondly about their travels together. “To take her outside of that [hospital] environment and do things that are normal—that felt great for me, and I think it maybe helped her understand that the friendship was genuine and real.”

Those times aren't always easy to come by. For the people gathered on the ninth floor— hospital staff, Nationwide reps, the media—his presence is a public relations affair. He appears uncomfortable with all the attention even after two decades in the spotlight. He's most at ease talking quietly with kids—hunkering in a corner chair, lowering his voice, shunning the guise of NASCAR Champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. to just be Maddie's friend Dale. They discuss camping—the Delaneys are going straight from the hospital to a long weekend retreat. Then Maddie hands him a huge gift bag containing a blanket that Nickole made for Dale's 13-week-old firstborn child.

The whirlwind tour ends too soon. He says goodbye but continues chatting about camping as he waits for the elevator. He has a 21-foot Airstream but says Amy thinks it's too cramped. “Use the bus!” Maddie calls out, referencing the replica of the bus from the movie “Bull Durham” that Dale keeps on his property. He breaks into laughter. It's something only a friend would know.

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