Racing Legends: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Written by Toby Christie
He’s a 15-time most popular driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and he was the face of the sport through the last two decades.
Despite having the weight of the world thrown onto his shoulders after a tragic finish to the 2001 Daytona 500, this driver went on to record 50 NASCAR National Series wins through from 1998 to 2017.
He was fast on the track, but Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy is more than just his race results. His popularity was a combination of his famous last name, a clean driving style, a humble personality and philanthropy.
This is the story of one of the coolest icons that NASCAR has ever seen.
Earnhardt’s blood lines run deep in NASCAR history. Earnhardt’s father – Dale Sr. – was a seven-time champion in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and his grandfather – Ralph – was a legendary short track driver in North Carolina.
Ralph also captured a championship in the NASCAR Sportsman Division in 1956 – this is the series that was eventually turned into today’s Xfinity Series.
Unfortunately for Dale Jr. he never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather as Ralph suffered a heart attack a year before he was born.
With his father trying to build a foundation for his racing career, Dale Jr. hardly had a chance to really spend any time with his father either growing up. The marriage between Dale Jr.’s father and mother –Brenda – became strained due to Dale Sr.’s hectic racing schedule.
As a result, the two divorced. Meanwhile, Dale Jr. struggled as a scrawny kid in school, with a tough family dynamic. He began to act out, which led to him – and his sister Kelley – being enrolled in military school.
Dale shaped up, and as he reached his late teens, he really started hinting to his father that he wanted to try his hand at racing.
Dale Sr. – much like his father before him – didn’t hand anything to his son. He told Dale Jr. that if he wanted to race, he needed to buy his own race car and that he needed to learn to work on them himself.
Dale Jr. did just that. He attended the Andy Hillenburg High Performance Driving School. While most of the other up and coming drivers, Dale’s age had begun racing by the age of 10, Dale Jr. hadn’t begun his driving career until the age of 17.
Dale Jr. went halvsies with his half-brother Kerry. The two purchased a 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo street stock for reportedly $300.
Dale Jr. would continue chasing his racing dream by driving late model races over the next couple of years, all the while he was working at his father’s car dealership changing oil. He has claimed that he was the fastest man in the state at changing oil.
It may not have been much, but it showed that Dale Jr. strived to be the fastest at anything he did, which is a key component for a racecar driver. He also went on to earn an associate degree in automotive technology at Mitchell Community College.
Earnhardt got the break of a lifetime, when his father gave him a shot to run a race for Dale Earnhardt Inc. at Myrtle Beach in the Busch Series.
Although it would appear that Earnhardt was handing his son the world on a silver platter, the idea to have Dale Jr. run that race was actually quite smart. Dale Jr. had run numerous races at the speedway in late models, and he had become something of an expert at the short track.
In his first-ever start in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Dale Jr. took his No. 31 Mom N Pops Chevy Monte Carlo to a 7th place starting position. He would run well throughout the race and would eventually finish 14th.
It was an eye-opening performance, but with sponsorship dollars being very short, Dale Jr. would spend the rest of the year hoping he would get another opportunity to drive.
1997 came with opportunity for the young third-generation driver, but it turned into a season of frustration.
Through eight starts in the Busch Series, Dale Jr. suffered three mechanical failures and had a crash at Gateway. However, he kept digging for crew chief Tony Eury Sr. and they did have a seventh place finish at Michigan and a good showing at Bristol.
Dale started second in Ed Whitaker’s No. 7 car at Bristol and led 22 laps before settling for a 22nd place finish.
Dale Jr. has been quoted as saying he thought the 1997 season was the beginning of the end of his driving career. He was cold calling teams, but none were interested in signing the driver to any kind of a deal.
Well James Finch was interested but he already had a driver in place for 1998.
Steve Park, who had driven the No. 3 car in the Busch Series for Dale Earnhardt Inc. had been groomed and was moving to the Cup series for the 1998 season. This left a seat open.
But Dale Sr. was emphatic that his son was not ready for the big time.
After a bunch of convincing from Tony Eury Sr., Dale Sr. agreed to give his son a shot. Dale Jr. was in disbelief that he would be piloting that car full-time.
The 1998 Busch Series campaign started off with an inauspicious start as Dale Jr. went flipping after contact with Dick Trickle in his first ever start at Daytona.
Dale Sr. luckily didn’t pull the plug, and all of a sudden Dale Jr. and the No. 3 team started rolling.
Earnhardt scored two second place finishes a third and a 10th over the next four races. Momentum was high, but the challenging Texas Motor Speedway loomed large.
TMS was a track in its first few seasons that absolutely chewed up and spit out race cars. Dale Jr. rolled into town hoping for a decent finish, but nobody knew what to expect from the young racer.
Earnhardt secured the 16th starting spot for the race, but once the race started Dale Jr. looked like a solid top-10 car.
He kept himself in decent position all day long, but he just didn’t seem to have anything for Joe Nemechek who had dominated the day by leading 83 of the 200 laps.
However, opportunity rang when there was a caution involving Dale Jarrett and Glenn Allen Jr. with 10 laps remaining.
Under the yellow as Dale Jr. was talking to Eury, a familiar voice popped on the radio. His father, Dale Sr., ordered the driver to pit lane for four tires.
For a young driver near the front a late-race call to pit road had to sound like a back breaker, but with not many cars on the lead lap, Dale Jr. began knifing his way through the field with fresh tires on the restart.
With one lap remaining, Dale Jr. got around Joe Nemechek for the lead. The crowd went to their feet – I know because I was in the crowd that day. Earnhardt would capture his first Busch Series victory in dramatic fashion.
With the win, Dale Jr. gained the point lead. After a rough four-race stretch which included three finishes of 28th-or-worse, Dale Jr. put his foot on the accelerator.
And he wouldn’t let off. Dale Jr. would win six more races – Dover, Milwaukee, Fontana, IRP, Richmond and Gateway en route to a surprising championship in his first full-time season in NASCAR Busch Series competition.
Dale Jr. wouldn’t stop there, 1999 was another incredible season.
He won six more Busch Series races, and went on to another series championship, and he also signed a contract with Budweiser to go Winston Cup Series racing.
Dale Jr. started five Winston Cup races in 1999. He finished 16th in the Coke 600, 43rd at New Hampshire after his ignition failed on lap 44, 24th at Michigan, 10th at Richmond and he led a lap before settling for 14th in the season ending race in Atlanta.
The stage was set for one of the most anticipated rookie seasons in NASCAR history.
And Dale Jr. didn’t disappoint – at least early in the season.
He scored a 13th place finish in his first ever Daytona 500 start and a 10th place finish after leading 42 laps a couple of weeks later in Las Vegas.
Dale would fall back to earth over the next few weeks though as he would finish 29th, 40th and 38th
In the back of Dale Jr.’s mind was the fact that his father could yank him from the car at any moment. Needless to say, he needed good consistent runs, and he needed them pronto.
In came a great sight for Dale Jr., Texas Motor Speedway.
Two years after his unexpected first triumph in the NASCAR Busch Series, Dale Jr. attempted to make lightning strike twice.
Junior rolled off the grid from the 4th position. He took the lead for the first time on the day at lap 17. Overall, he would lead a race-high 106 laps.
Dale Jr. would lose the lead on a late race pit stop under caution, but when the green flag came back out he breezed past his DEI teammate Steve Park for the lead.
The young driver wouldn’t look back and cruised to a 5.9 second win over Jeff Burton.
Just a handful of years before this day, it looked like Dale Jr. would never have a shot at competing in the Cup Series. Now he was one of the sport’s brightest rising stars.
Dale Jr. would parlay his Texas win with another win a few weeks later in Richmond. One week after his win at Richmond, Dale Jr. did it again as he became the first rookie to ever win the All-Star race at Charlotte.
It all seemed too good to be true, and really it was. The rest of the season was a huge struggle for Dale Jr. as he finished the final 21 races of the year without another top-10 finish.
What looked like possibly one of the best rookie seasons in NASCAR history eroded into a runner-up finish in the rookie of the year standings, as Matt Kenseth took home that honor.
However, Dale Jr. finally proved to his father that he had what it took to win races at NASCAR’s highest level and he had made up for a bunch of lost time by racing against his father for an entire season.
With 2000 in the rear-view mirror, Dale Jr. set out for his sophomore season in NASCAR’s premier series.
The Daytona 500 is a race that is synonymous with the Earnhardt family, as Dale Sr. chased the win in the race for 20 years before finally reaching victory lane in 1998. However, the 2001 edition of the race paired the family with the track forever in the most tragic way possible.
With Dale Earnhardt Incorporated drivers, Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. battling for the win in the closing laps, Dale Sr. was trying to hold off the feverish field behind him from the third position.
Dale Sr. repeatedly sliced high and sliced low trying to fend off Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and others, but with one lap to go the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet made an error.
Earnhardt went for a block of Marlin in the final turn of the race, but Marlin’s nose had snuck to the left rear quarterpanel of Dale Sr.’s car. The two made contact, which sent Dale Sr. down to the apron of the 31-degree banked turns.
Dale Sr.’s car then darted across the track, collecting Ken Schrader in the process. As Michael Waltrip crossed the line ahead of Dale Jr. as the winner of the Daytona 500, Dale Sr.’s car skidded to a stop in the infield of turn four.
Hours later Mike Helton delivered the most horrifying message ever announced in the history of NASCAR, that Dale Jr.’s father had died following the crash.
An entire sport mourned the death of a legend, but Dale Jr.’s heart hurt even more as his father, who he had finally begun to spend quality time with was gone.
Dale Jr. struggled mightily during the first half of the 2001 season, but then it was time for the July race at Daytona.
An ultra-focused Dale Jr. showed up with one thing in mind: making his father proud and continuing the Earnhardt legacy of winning at Daytona.
He started the race from the 13th spot, and it took him 27 laps to reach the front, but when he did the crowd erupted. Dale Jr. would drive like a man possessed for the remainder of the race.
In all he led 116 of the 160 laps, but in the closing laps he was mired back in seventh with just nine laps to go.
However, Dale Jr. utilized side drafting to pull out and pass the cars in front of him one by one. With four laps left he passed Johnny Benson for the lead, Michael Waltrip followed in toe and helped push Dale Jr. to victory.
It was the ultimate story book finish at the track where Dale Jr. had lost his father just a few months before.
Dale Jr. would go on to win two more races in 2001 – at Dover and Talladega and he would end the season eighth in the championship standings.
Dale Jr. would spend the next six seasons with his family’s race team, DEI.
Over that span of time he would win 12 more races – including an impressive six-win campaign in 2004. But no race win carried more weight than the 2004 Daytona 500.
His father waited 20 years to win the sport’s biggest race, but it took Dale Jr. just five attempts to capture the Harley J Earl trophy, and he did so in a classic duel with Tony Stewart.
Stewart who was leading late in the race, Dale Jr. and the lapped car of Kurt Busch had broken away from the rest of the pack.
With no help, Dale Jr. sized up Stewart and pulled out with a run with 19 laps remaining. He got alongside Stewart and had just enough momentum to clear the No. 20 car. From there Dale Jr. was able to play defense.
As the 2007 season was unfolding, Dale Jr. was at odds with his stepmother – Teresa – and her handling of the operations at DEI. He didn’t feel they were spending the correct money in the correct places to compete for championships.
With his contract expiring, Dale requested 51-percent ownership in the company to stay. Teresa declined, and Dale Jr. decided to move on.
Dale would spend the next 10 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, and although he never did capture a Cup Series championship he did compete for wins – 9 more in fact. However, the bigger story was how he grew as a person during this time.
The Dale Jr. Foundation was started in 2007, and Earnhardt according to his website has raised over $4.2 million for charity.
He also started his own race team – JR Motorsports after splitting from DEI. Dale has given the resources to numerous young drivers to compete for championships and to showcase their talents. Among those drivers was Brad Keselowski, who went on to win a Cup Series championship.
Among those drivers was Brad Keselowski, who went on to win a Cup Series championship.
Dale Jr. also joined twitter after his second Daytona 500 win in 2014, and he has been one of the best follows on there ever since. Heck the usually reclusive driver became an outgoing voice of the sport, his now wife Amy is a big part of that. The two married on New Year’s in 2017.
Midway through the 2016 season, Earnhardt suffered a severe concussion, which was at least his fourth documented one since he started racing in NASCAR.
This concussion left Dale Jr. with huge hurdles in his life to just return to being his normal self. He dug deep and with the help of his medical team he was able to recover to return for the 2017 racing season.
In the early stages of the 2017 season, Dale Jr. announced that he would retire from full-time competition following the season ending race at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Dale was thankful for the opportunity to go out on his own terms. Even though his final season was a struggle for the most part, he really seemed to enjoy every minute of his last season.
To say Dale Jr.’s racing career was a wild ride would be an understatement. We literally watched him grow up before our very eyes into one of the most likable charismatic drivers the sport will ever see.
Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images