1. He goes out on his own terms
You’d expect nothing less, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the person who ultimately made the call about when to step aside. He could have done it six months ago, and some will argue that maybe he should have, but that wouldn’t really have been his decision. It would have been influenced by his doctors, or his sponsors or his team owner. He came back from a serious injury, gets one last halcyon summer and then climbs out of the car one last time.
Truly, that’s the goal of any driver — to decide the when, the where, the why. Many don’t get that opportunity. At best, some lose their ride to the next hot prospect to come along; at worst, they’re taken by the sport they love. In the middle, age and injury take their toll. Earnhardt as a driver is still sharp and as a man still healthy enough to walk through life with his new wife at his side. He decided to take the path that diverged from chasing trophies in the driver’s seat.
A third-generation driver, Earnhardt is the first to be able to do that. His grandfather died of a heart attack while still working on race cars. His father was taken at the track where he had also been at his most glorious. They missed out on the life Earnhardt has decided he will spend his years enjoying. He’s earned it.
2. He filled a void thought unfillable
When his father lost his life at Daytona International Speedway in 2001, Earnhardt had to grow up virtually overnight. He worried about losing sponsors. What if they were with him because of his father? He worried about his role at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. And he grieved as a child for his father.
NASCAR Nation was also in mourning, wondering what the sport would be. Many called out Sterling Marlin, the other driver involved in the fatal crash, hurling terrible, hurtful words at him. It was Earnhardt who quelled those words, asking fans not to blame Marlin. And then he climbed back into his car and won the next race at Daytona that summer. He had always carried his father’s name, and it seemed like now he carried the expectations of so many others along with it. He lost more that day than any race fan, and yet he shouldered their grief and expectations with his own, showing poise and grace.
And as the years went by, he became the face of NASCAR, its most popular driver, as evidenced by winning the fan-voted award year after year. The sport would never forget Dale Earnhardt, but it evolved to the point where his son was the man.
3. Yet he was, from day one, his own man
Earnhardt never tried to be his father. Oh, there were times he’d show flashes of his actions. He could intimidate on the track, but he generally chose not to. He’s taken criticism for not using his bumper to win races, something his father did regularly. That’s not his style. It never really was.
Earnhardt was a little wild as a young man, partying hard and sometimes regretting it. As he grew older and wiser, he remained approachable and young in the ways that it matters to stay young. His father often shook his head at his namesake, but Earnhardt took it in stride. He wanted to make his father proud, not to be him. It’s safe to say he succeeded on both counts.
4. He gets it and he always has
The need for blue-collar drivers in NASCAR, or at least the perception of them, has never escaped Earnhardt. It’s hard to say he’s truly blue-collar considering his background, but he’s always come across that way. He’s the kind of guy fans would like to sit down and have a beer with, and they’d probably get exactly what they expected. He has as much wealth as his shopmate, who’s got as many titles as his father had, but he doesn’t come across that way. The irony here is that Jimmie Johnson did grow up decidedly blue-collar, more so than Earnhardt, but that’s never been the perception.
Earnhardt is well-spoken, can be eloquent with words. He can write beautifully in a style that is familiar and inviting, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. There are times when he doesn’t want to talk about something that his accent grows thicker and his words less eloquent, but it’s hard to believe that that’s not often an act, a distraction.
While he’s engaging fans with his throwback blue-collar charm, Earnhardt understands the sport. He knows where it’s come from, because he was a part of it, or at least longed to be. He also understands the changes it’s gone through and why some of them have been necessary. He brings NASCAR and its fans onto the same page, reminding them all where they came from and what, underneath it all, is still something to hang on to. In a sport that’s become increasingly corporate, Earnhardt stands out as a throwback to simpler times. And, as an avid follower of the sport’s history, he knows why that’s so vitally important
5. And he could drive a little bit, too
He still can, and at the end of the day, if you need the answer to why, this is the best possible answer. He still can.
While his career will inevitably always be compared to his father’s, and the numbers will inevitably fall short, Earnhardt has built a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Beyond the Most Popular Driver trophies is a 26-time race winner, good for 29th all time. That’s more than hundreds of others, more than a handful of drivers already in the Hall.
But numbers aside, Earnhardt has been an ambassador for the sport of NASCAR when it needed him most. A link to both the sport’s past and its future, with JR Motorsports as a vital piece of driver development for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt is, in many ways, a renaissance man: a driver who can relate to all, who can put into words what many cannot. He has earned the respect of the entire industry, its fans and competitors.
His legacy isn’t, and has never been, merely what he has done behind the wheel of a racecar. Instead, it’s in what he did for a sport in its darkest hour, even as that hour was darker still for him. It’s in the loyalty and passion of his fans. It’s in the team he’s built. It permeates the sport, a piece of the tapestry that endures.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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