The man stood incongruously in the middle of the action at driver introductions for the Sprint All-Star Race, dressed casually in a vintage Bill Elliott T-shirt and denim jeans.
"Some people brushed them off and probably shouldn't have," noted Hermie Sadler, a NASCAR driver and television analyst of some note who not only knew the story behind the men but had befriended them, particularly the one in the Bill Elliott T-shirt.
That would be Joe Denette, multi-millionaire and winner of a $75.6 million jackpot in the Mega Millions lottery game. Denette also is a lifelong NASCAR fan who since has gone on to form Joe Denette Motorsports, which fielded the No. 23 Chevrolet team of driver Jason White in its rookie season in the Camping World Truck Series.
Denette was born in Woodbridge, Va., but has spent most of his 48 years of life living and working in and around Fredricksburg, Va. He and his brother Fred, along with another brother and a sister, were raised by a single mother, Inge Denette, who did what she could to make sure their basic needs were met.
Joe Denette was good with his hands and eventually found a job fixing up houses for a builder in northern Virginia. Life was simple, but fine. He always had NASCAR to serve as a welcome diversion to the everyday grind, and looked forward eagerly to the start of each season. He also began collecting die-cast cars and other memorabilia, and soon built a small shrine dedicated to the sport in the basement of his home -- complete with a black-and-white, checkered tile floor.
Then the housing boom went bust. Like so many other Americans, Joe Denette found himself caught up in it. He was laid off from his job.
"Around this time of year in 2009 I was unemployed and basically waiting for the race season to start, because that was always something I looked forward to," Denette said. "I would sit there and work side jobs, work on houses for people, just enough to make ends meet."
His hard luck was about to change. In April of 2009, Denette called a local radio station in Virginia that was running a promotion to give away four tickets to the upcoming race at Richmond International Raceway. He got through, and all he had to do was answer a simple trivia question.
He had his tickets to the race. The first thing he did after that was call his brother, Fred, who lives in Bristol, Tenn., and shares his passion for NASCAR. He told Fred the good news and offered to fly Fred in for the race.
Winning the race tickets was nice, but Joe Denette was just getting warmed up. On his way to the Richmond airport to pick up his younger brother, Joe Denette participated in another one of his passionate hobbies. He bought 23 Mega Millions lottery tickets, picking three sets of numbers himself and letting the computer determine his fate on the rest.
Then he picked Fred up and they went over to their mother's house where "we did our normal thing" and basically just hung out that Friday night. The next morning, Fred was in the bathroom when he heard Joe and his mother carrying on in another room of the house.
"I just hit Mega Millions for $75.6 million!" Joe exclaimed. "You don't have to work no more. I'm gonna give you a million dollars right off the top."
Fred sat for a moment in stunned silence.
"I said to Joe, 'What are we going to do?' He said, 'We're going to go to the race.' He signed the ticket, gave it to my mother to hide. Then we went and picked up a couple friends and drove to the race, just like we had planned all along."
Like any good fans, Joe and Fred Denette proceeded to tailgate as usual. In the back of his mind, was the idea that one of those things he wanted to do was own a NASCAR race team. Come the following Monday morning, when the lottery office opened, Joe Denette's life and the lives of many of those closest to him were about to change.
Taking into account the story of how Joe had purchased his winning ticket and what he had done to celebrate, Virginia state lottery officials decided to ask the official check presentation ceremony to be held at Richmond International Raceway. Hermie Sadler had a personal services contract with RIR at the time and was asked to do the honors, along with providing a few pace-car laps for the honored guest.
"I carried him for rides in the pace car and handed him his check in Victory Lane, and we said we'd keep in touch. But I didn't know if I'd ever hear from him again," Sadler said. "Then a couple weeks later he called me up and asked me to meet him at a truck stop in Emporia [Va.]. He came through Emporia and we met up at the truck stop."
Denette seemed more serious than the last time they saw each other. And he obviously had done some homework on Sadler, whose 12-year-old daughter Halie suffers from autism. Sadler and his brother -- former Sprint Cup driver and current Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler -- formed the Hermie and Elliott Sadler Charitable Foundation in March of 2000. The foundation is dedicated to raising autism awareness and promoting research for a cure.
"Hey, I want to help your foundation," Denette told Hermie.
With that, Denette produced a check for $250,000 that he promptly handed over to Sadler.
"He came and brought me a check for $250,000 for my foundation out of the blue," said Sadler, still shaking his head at the thought of the pleasant surprise nearly two years later. The money is being used to help develop a child-services center in Emporia for kids with autism.
Shortly thereafter, looking to repay Denette in some small way, Sadler offered to take him and his brother and one of their friends to Charlotte for a behind-the-scenes look at the All-Star Race. Once there, Joe Denette got to meet his long-time racing hero, Bill Elliott, and hang out near the infield stage for those driver introductions.
It was a side of the sport he had only observed from afar. But it was only a taste. Denette wanted more.
Along the way, Denette asked Sadler if he had an interest in possibly driving a truck sponsored by him and the Virginia state lottery in an upcoming race at Bristol. Sadler agreed, and drove in several more races for a Denette-sponsored truck during the 2010 season.
Still, Denette wanted even more. He wanted to own a Camping World Truck Series team that would run a full 25-race schedule and compete for the series championship. He asked Sadler how to go about pursuing his dream.
Sadler cut a deal with Harvick and KHI to build the trucks for what soon came to be known as Joe Denette Motorsports. Then Sadler struck an arrangement to have respected engine builder Mark Smith provide engines through his company, Pro Motor Engines.
As for the driving side of it, Sadler was in the process of piecing together what he thought might still be a part-time schedule of roughly 15-18 races the first season, simply to help Denette "get his feet wet." He was planning to drive some of the races, along with his brother Elliott and Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray. Then Sadler's phone rang. It was Harvick on the other end.
"We've been talking to [driver] Jason White and the GunBroker.com people, and we think you guys would be the perfect fit with what y'all are trying to do," Harvick said.
It turns out that back around 2004, Denette got word that his hero Bill Elliott and some other top NASCAR drivers would be making an appearance together at a short track -- seven hours away by car, in New Jersey. That did not deter Denette, who got in his old Mustang and drove the seven hours without hesitation. He said he met Harvick there, spoke with him briefly, and got his autograph. Now they are working to build a competitive NASCAR team together.
"I'm not looking at it to make millions. I'm looking at it, actually, to win races and to win championships," Denette said. "You look at Cup, and the money is there. Truck racing, there really isn't the money to be made -- but it's more racing, if you ask me."
Denette said he became a fan from watching races and following Bill Elliott "his entire life." He attended the last races ever held at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. He is determined to enjoy his new-found financial freedom for the rest of his life without shortchanging his lifelong passion for racing.
"I've heard people making comments on Facebook and stuff, 'Oh, well, he's stupid for doing that. Look at him in two years and he's going to be broke.' When I won the lottery in '09, people said the same thing. They were like, 'Look at him in two years and he'll be broke.' Well, I'm not going to do that -- because then I'd have to go back to work!" he said.
In addition to buying the race team, he has spent some of the money on various other ventures, frequently for others. He paid off his sister's mortgage, and a nephew's. He gave Fred $1 million "off the top" as promised. He bought three houses in the same neighborhood, but already is planning on selling two of them.
"He's got a good family, and he's taking care of his family," Sadler said. "But other than that, he's a simple guy who loves simple things. He loves NASCAR. A lot of times around the garage we used the phrase, 'Livin' the dream.' Well, he's really livin' the dream and doing something he never thought he would have the opportunity to do."