Having won NASCAR’s most popular driver award 14-times, it’s safe to say that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the face of the sport for nearly two decades, but now he’s ready to start a new chapter in life.
After getting married in the offseason, Earnhardt has stated that he would love to have a family of his own, and he’s willing to make a lot of sacrifices for that to happen.
Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, one of those sacrifices he’s willing to give up is racing altogether, and has announced that this year will be his last.
Earnhardt’s team, Hendrick Motorsports, issued a press release that broke the hearts of the entire NASCAR community.
“After 18 seasons and more than 600 races behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will bring his NASCAR Cup Series driving career to a close at the conclusion of 2017.”
As the sport’s most popular driver for well over a decade, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been an incredible ambassador for racing, but it hasn’t been an easy road.
While he is the son of racing legend Dale Sr., many aren’t aware that Jr.’s grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, built NASCAR automobiles for a living. Racing was in his blood before he ever got behind a wheel.
As a youngster growing up in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Junior was already taking racing very seriously. He was enrolled in a high performance racing school at an early age, and was taught the finer points of how to go fast. When he was 17-years-old he began competing in Street Stock races in the 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that Junior and his brother owned together. After a couple years honing his skills behind the wheel, Junior moved on to the Late Model Stock Car division, primarily competing in North and South Carolina.
Junior flourished behind the wheel, and in 1996 he began racing in NASCAR’s Busch-Series, driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and Ed Whitaker in nine different events. By 1998, Dale Jr. was driving for his father’s team full-time in the Busch series. In both 1998, and 1999, Junior would win NASCAR Busch-Series championships, and would ultimately be promoted to the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup).
In 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined his father and brother on team Dale Earnhardt Inc. to compete full-time in the Winston Cup Series driving the No. 8 Budweiser car.
Not long after making his Winston Cup debut, Junior was already making a name for himself. In his rookie season, Junior would win his 12th start at Texas Motor Speedway, breaking the record for fewest starts to earn a victory previously held by his dad. That year he also became the first rookie to win the All-Star race.
The year 2000 was a special year for the Earnhardt boys. During the Pepsi 400, Dale Sr., Junior, and Kerry became the first father-son(s) to compete in a race since Lee Petty raced against his sons Richard and Maurice. The future seemingly couldn’t be brighter for the Earnhardt family.
Nobody could have imagined the devastation that would occur the following year. The 2001 season started off on a very positive note for the Earnhardt team. Dale Sr. had already won a couple of races that year heading into the Daytona 500, and the entire team was expected to finish very high.
Junior would finish second to his teammate, Michael Waltrip, but it wasn’t the 1-2 finish that we remember. Heading into the final turn, Dale Earnhardt Sr. collided with fellow drivers Kevin Schrader, and Sterling Martin. Earnhardt’s car ran into the outside wall head-on, and hours later “The Intimidator” was pronounced dead.
Think about that for a moment. One second you are celebrating with your teammate having taken home first, and second place, but in the rearview mirror you watch as your father’s car is crushed in horrific fashion. That is what happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr. February 18, 2001. You can’t help but tear up when reading what Earnhardt had written about his father three months prior:
I know a man whose hands are so callused that gloves aren’t necessary. Once, while cutting down a tree, he cut the back of his hand to the bone with a chainsaw. He didn’t even stop to look until the job was done.
I’ve seen him get thrown from a tractor. The tractor, as large as a small home, was flipped by the trunk of a stubborn oak tree. His first thought was not fear, but how quickly he could get the tractor back on its tracks to complete the task. He has suffered broken bones and never had one complaint. Not to anyone, not even to himself.
This man could lead the world’s finest army. He has wisdom that knows no bounds. No fire could burn his character, no stone could break it. He maintains a private existence. One that shelters his most coveted thoughts from the world.
His upbringing was no controlled creation. His hard-working family was like many from that era. He gained his knowledge in hard dirt and second-hand tools, from his toys as a child to the trucks he drove in his 20s. From that natural upbringing, he has an incredible sense of good and bad. He sees it before it sees him, in people, in anything imaginable. Where did he learn this? How does he know so many things?
I’ve seen this man create many things. With no blueprints, he has carved and produced wonders upon wonders. His resume shows he has created major companies. He has hammered out deal upon deal — always being as fair as God would have it. He has taken land with thick shrub and deep valleys and molded them into a frontier fit for heaven. He has built homes that kings couldn’t fathom.
Solving problems is as easy as breathing for him. They are thrown his way like the morning paper. People surround him daily, wanting solutions. He hands them out with pride and passion. Each solution is a battle won. He calculates his every action, demanding the same from everyone else. He is honest in letting you know your end of the bargain.
His friendship is the greatest gift you could ever obtain. Out of all his attributes, it is the most impressive. He trusts only a few with this gift. If you ever break that trust — it is over. He accepts few apologies. Many have crossed him and they leave with only regret for their actions. In every result, he stands as an example of what hard work and dedication will achieve. Even his enemies know this.
I have had the pleasure of joining him on the battlefield. I have experienced his intimidating wrath. That may sound strong, but I know what I am talking about. He roams like a lion, king of his jungle. His jungle is his and his alone. Every step he takes has purpose. Every walk has reason.
He praises God, loves his family, enjoys his friends.
I wonder what his future holds. He has so much to be proud of. To this point, he’s only barely satisfied. His eyes see much more than my imagination could produce. He is Dale Earnhardt. Dad, the world’s finest army awaits.
The following week tragedy nearly struck again. Junior, who bravely had decided to continue racing, was involved in a wreck at the start of the race that left him with a 43rd place finish. In spite of this poor outing, Junior would find it within himself to put a comeback together.
Remember the race that Junior drove in against his brother and father? Well, following his father’s death, Junior’s first win that season occurred at the Pepsi 400. To make things even more emotional, the race was the first to take place at Daytona Speedway since Earnhardt Sr. had lost his life. That year he would also go on to win the MBNA Cal Ripkin Jr. 400, which was the first race held after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Junior would continue to dazzle in the world of racing, winning the 2003 award for NASCAR’s most popular driver (he would win from 2003-2015), while finishing a career high third in points standings.
For years with Dale Earnhardt Inc., Junior would always find himself on the cusp of greatness, but never able to win the ever elusive Sprint Cup. Finally, in 2007, he would have one last chance to win a title with his father’s team, as his contract would run out at the end of the season.
That season, Junior found himself in 13th place according to the standings, with the top-12 qualifying for the “Chase For The Cup.” While in second place of the Watkins Glen International, Junior’s engine would blow out, costing him any chance at winning a championship that season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew that the only way he would be able to win a championship would be to have sole ownership of DEI. When that wouldn’t be granted to him, Junior went with his only other option: find a new team. After much speculation, Dale Jr. would ultimately sign with Hendrick Motorsports, and would drive the No. 88 for them beginning 2008.
In his first race with Hendrick, Junior would win the Budweiser Shootout (an exhibition race). Five days later, he would go on to win the Gatorade Duel. Seemingly, Earnhardt was a perfect fit with Hendrick. That same year, Earnhardt broke a 76-race winless streak by finishing first in the LifeLock 400. He would go on to finish one place better than the previous year, coming in 12th.
On October 7, 2012, Junior’s career was in question after a terrible 23-car wreck left the driver with a severe concussion. Just weeks earlier he had suffered a concussion from another accident. On October 11, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Earnhardt would be out for at least the next two races, marking the first time in his career he’d have to miss a start (461 consecutive starts). A few weeks later, as expected, Junior was back on the track competing. That year he would again finish 12th in the standings.
Junior has since finished fifth, eighth, and sixth place in NASCAR’s standings over the past three seasons, but during that time he has remained the sport’s most popular and polarizing figure, by far. With an estimated net worth exceeding $300 million, it’s safe to say that NASCAR has been good to its favorite son.
However, when you hear his name you can’t help but conjure up images of his mustached old man grinning behind the wheel. Dale Sr. was about winning, but doing so in style. After a recent victory by Junior at Richmond International Speedway, fans were puzzled as to why Earnhardt didn’t do a “burn-out” to which he tweeted:
That rare blend of class, humor, and charm are traits that made his father one of racing’s most popular drivers of all-time. Fortunately, for NASCAR fans, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Thank you Dale Earnhardt Jr. for being an excellent role model and for your unashamed faith in Jesus Christ. God bless you, and good luck in your final season!