"I felt like I knew him," Sanders says of Earnhardt, the NASCAR legend that was killed in a last lap crash in 2001. "Losing him had a major impact for me"

It was the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and 12-year-old Adam Sanders was feeling nothing short of euphoric. His favorite NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt looked like he had a Top 5 finish in the bag as he sped into turn four of Daytona International Speedway.

"I will never, ever forget that day," Sanders, 33, tells PEOPLE of the life-altering moment. "I was watching the race with my dad, and even though I was really young, I knew that something significant had happened. My dad wasn't a big Earnhardt fan, but I just remember the look on his face. That night, he gave me a hug and simply said 'I'm sorry about your driver.'"

adam sanders
Adam Sanders
| Credit: Jana Hall 

And yes, Earnhardt was Sanders' driver. The Florida native wore Earnhardt T-shirts. He had Earnhardt race suits in his closet. He had magazines with Earnhardt on the cover and die-cast cars with the number "3" on its side.

The only thing he didn't have any more was his hero.

"I felt like I knew him," Sanders says of Earnhardt, the NASCAR legend that was killed in that last lap crash on that dreadful day in 2001. "I felt like he was a family member to me, like I had lost an uncle or someone that close to me. Losing him had a major impact for me."

But as they say, life went on. Sanders grew up and started rooting for another driver. He moved to Nashville and started writing hit songs for artist such as Dustin Lynch, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley. But every Sunday, he could still be found at a track or in front of his television set, waiting for the green flag to fly once again.

"Music, the outdoors and NASCAR," he says quietly. "They have been the three constants in my life."

adam sanders
Adam Sanders
| Credit: jana hall

So, when Sanders' buddy and fellow country artist Cole Swindell gave him a call back in the spring of 2019, asking him if he might want to join him on a road trip to see the NASCAR race in Atlanta, Sanders couldn't refuse. But never did he imagine that this trip would result in the creation of a song that could go and make Sanders a country music superstar.

"On our way, we started talking about our childhoods and our upbringing and what NASCAR meant to us," remembers Sanders, who was also joined on the bus by fellow songwriter Taylor Phillips. "We started talking about how, for a long time after Dale died, people will hold up three fingers in the air to symbolize his car number. And then we started thinking how cool it would be for everyone in an arena to do that during one of our songs."

Incorporating nostalgic undertones with intense feeling lyrics, "Daddy, Jesus and Earnhardt" pays tribute to a trio of personal powerhouses, and happened to be written in front of a campfire outside of turn one of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"I remember getting home from that trip and just diving into the 50 or so voice notes I had recorded on my phone that night," Sanders says of the touching song — premiering exclusively on PEOPLE — and a song set to be featured on his debut, full-length album What If I'm Right.

"Listening to those recordings reminded me of when we first started writing. We were just so fired up about every line. Some of that stuff goes away the longer you are in this business. You get immune to that feeling. But not with this song. We felt this song in our soul."

adam sanders
Adam Sanders as a child
| Credit: adam sanders

Officially written by Sanders, Swindell, Phillips and fellow songwriter Brock Berryhill, "Daddy, Jesus and Earnhardt" originally looked as if it would be Swindell's to cut. But destiny had other ideas, and eventually, the song landed in Sanders' lap.

 But Sanders didn't tell his dad at first.

"I remember going over to see him one day, and out of nowhere, he handed me a picture of me when I was 12 years old wearing a Dale Earnhardt driving suit," Sanders remembers. "It was like fate. I knew the song was meant to be mine."