For most of his life, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has walked in the shadow of his famous father. Each victory has been celebrated while every misstep has led to the inevitable comparison to a legacy that is larger than life.
It’s not a path I would have chosen for my son. But Earnhardt embraced it, choosing to follow in his father’s footsteps. As a teenager, he had a clear vision of his future.
During an interview with the late Steve Byrnes in 1990, he said, “I want to be a racecar driver someday. It’s a great sport, I love it to death. It’s all I’ve ever known, racing.”
And, race he did.
In 1998 he won his first race in the Busch Grand National Series driving for his dad’s team. It was his 16th start in the series and as he crossed the finish line, Dale Jr. shared his excitement with his father, saying on the radio, “Daddy, I love you to death.”
His youthful exuberance was contagious, the bond between father and son undeniable. The possibilities, it seemed, were endless.
Earnhardt won back to back XFINITY Series championships in 1998-1999 before heading to the Cup Series full-time in 2000. And then, the unthinkable happened.
In February 2001, his father passed away after an accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and everyone looked to his son for comfort. Despite his heartbreak, Dale Jr. did what had to be done. He strapped into his racecar and went back to work, putting his own grief on hold so the healing could begin.
But NASCAR was still hurting, collectively holding their breath and wondering how to move forward after such a significant loss. When they returned to Daytona in July, Dale Jr. again led the way, driving to victory lane in a poignant celebration, and, in that moment, we finally exhaled.
Throughout Earnhardt’s career, we’ve watched him grow into one of the most beloved and respected drivers in NASCAR. He scored 24 victories in the Busch Series and he has claimed 26 victories in the Cup Series, including two Daytona 500s. NASCAR fans have voted for him as the most popular driver for 14 consecutive years and he will more than likely add one more to the total this season.
Though he has never captured the ultimate prize of a Cup Championship, it’s a career that will certainly land him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Still, there will always be those that hold him to an unattainable standard.
It reminds me of Hank Williams Jr. who knew a few things about being compared to a famous father. In the song, ‘Living Proof’ he sang, “Why just the other night after the show an old drunk came up to me. He says you ain’t as good as your daddy, boy, and you never will be.”
However, no one could ever fill those shoes. His dad’s life cut short, a legend immortalized in time, will never be duplicated. Instead, Dale Jr. has crafted his own unique legacy.
And it extends well beyond the race track. He has left an indelible impression with his charitable contributions, his mentoring of younger drivers and the attention he has brought to concussion awareness.
How do you measure a man’s worth? For Earnhardt, it’s not about the number of trophies but about the quality of his character.
“I hope people just thought I was good and honest and represented the sport well, he recently said. “I hope people that work with me enjoyed working with me, whether it was in the late model ranks or whatever, and I hope the guys I raced against enjoyed racing with me. That’s really all that will matter. Hopefully, I left a good impression. I’ve had a lot of fun.”
In the end, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done exactly what his father wanted him to do.
His dad was once asked how he kept his son grounded, and said, “He’s seen where we’ve came from, he knows the story. Material things are great but that’s not the important thing in the world. God and family, what people think about you is more important to me. To be able to take what he’s doing and make it work for him for the future but be a nice person as you go. That’s the important thing.”
Earnhardt’s humility, his passion for racing and his innate ability to connect with the fans has made him an invaluable asset to the sport. His impact on NASCAR will live on long after he steps out of a racecar and into a broadcast booth. But his absence from competition will leave a huge void that will be difficult, if not impossible to fill. It’s hard to imagine a NASCAR race without Dale Jr. but one thing is clear. It won’t be the same without him.
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