Fate and circumstance made him NASCAR’s biggest star, yet Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained true to himself. The two-time Daytona 500 winner’s decision to quit racing at the end of 2017 is entirely in keeping with that.
On Nov. 19, the checkered flag will fall at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Fla., and when it does, two things will happen: A new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion will be crowned, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career as a full-time Cup driver will conclude after 18 seasons.
As the son of the late, great Dale Earnhardt, Junior came into the sport with almost unattainable expectations: His father won seven Cup championships and 76 points races, and was the true cock of the walk in the NASCAR garage. In a sport filled with alpha males, the senior Earnhardt was the biggest and baddest of all.
But the elder Earnhardt perished in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500, Feb. 18, 2001. Overnight, Earnhardt Jr. inherited the overwhelming majority of his late father’s fans to go with his own considerable fan base – not to mention a weight of pressure and expectations that might have crushed a lesser man.
At the time of his father’s passing, the younger Earnhardt was in only his second full season of Cup, having won his first race at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2000 and NASCAR’s All-Star Race in May.
The two Earnhardts couldn’t have been more different: Daddy was “The Intimidator,” “The Man In Black,” a former linthead who escaped the mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., to become a blue-collar Everyman and hero to millions.
In personality, Earnhardt Jr. is much more quiet, humble and introspective. Tellingly, he describes himself in his Twitter bio as “Former backup fullback for Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer. Retired automotive service mechanic. Aspiring BBQ Pitmaster. Friends, Music, Beer!”
What the two shared was deep loyalty to family, close friends and their race teams. When Earnhardt Jr. announced earlier this year that he was retiring, he worried about his team members.
“It’s really emotional,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just don’t like letting people down, and worry about disappointing my boss and my friend (Rick Hendrick), and my crew. These guys, we all depend on each other to be there every day, so to come in and say I’m not going to be here one day is very difficult. We all kind of wish we could stay together forever.”
In terms of on-track performance, Dale Jr. has put up solid, but not spectacular numbers. Through the fall Talladega race, he had 26 wins, 149 top fives and 14 poles in 626 starts. Included in those totals are two Daytona 500 triumphs, in 2004 (pictured below) and ’14, plus eight other restrictorplate points-race wins, a total that trails only five NASCAR Hall of Famers: The elder Earnhardt (13), Cale Yarborough (12), Jeff Gordon (12), Richard Petty (12) and David Pearson (11).
Earnhardt Jr. also has eight non-points wins (five in Daytona 500 qualifying Duels, two in the curtain raising Clash, and that one All-Star Race back in 2000), and has qualified for NASCAR’s playoffs eight times.
Detractors will point out that Dale Jr. never won a championship (his best was third in points in a pre playoffs 2003 season), nor did he ever win some of NASCAR’s other majors, including the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway or the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There have been harrowing moments for Earnhardt Jr. on track, too: He escaped with only minor burns when his Corvette crashed and burst into flames in practice for a one-off American Le Mans Series outing at Sonoma Raceway, Calif., in 2004. Earnhardt Jr. later told “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace that he felt his late father help pull him from the inferno.
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