Dale Earnhardt Jr. had let himself wonder what it would feel like to one day hear his name called for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, or at least be nominated.
But after finding out that he was on the list for the 2021 class, Earnhardt admitted he missed the mark on the feeling. Earnhardt was announced as one of 15 nominees late Tuesday, his first time on the ballot.
“I felt that in my heart immediately,” said Earnhardt (pictured above celebrating his second Daytona 500 victory in 2014) on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “If you have reasonable or moderate success, you start to think about the ‘what ifs’ and getting credit or acknowledgment for anything you do in your professional life. It’s such a great feeling.
“It was much more emotional and touching just to be thought of and considered, so that was the initial feeling right out of the gate.”
Other nominees include Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards, also on the ballot for the first time. Ricky Rudd and Harry Gant are also on the ballot, as are the late Neil Bonnett and Mike Stefanik. Crew chief Jake Elder, who worked with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in his rookie season, is also nominated.
For Earnhardt, it is a great group to be included in, and it got him thinking. Earnhardt shared the track with Burton, Edwards, and Rudd, and he always felt it was an honor. Many of the individuals on the list Earnhardt considers his heroes.
“I was just really honored by that, and it’s the same feeling all over again to be looking at that list, and your face is alongside all those other guys,” said Earnhardt. “I’m really proud of what we did as far as being an owner and a driver and everything else in between. The broadcasting and all that. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve been able to do in the sport, and I’ve tried to do it right, and it just feels really nice to have somebody appreciate it.”
However, Earnhardt admitted if he were selected to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, it would be a double-edged sword. And he would not vote for himself if he had a vote, because every year when the list comes out, Earnhardt fights the internal battle many within the garage do about who should be selected.
“Everybody deserves to go in there, and everybody has an opinion on who deserves it today versus the next guy, and what’s the pecking order,” he said.
Earnhardt looks at Kirk Shelmerdine as someone who should be in the Hall of Fame. Shelmerdine won four championships as a crew chief. He also looks at Harry Gant, who won 18 Cup Series races and 21 Xfinity Series races.
“It’s a new process, it’s a new way of picking the nominees, and I think they made a good choice to help incorporate some of the older guard into the Hall of Fame class each year,” said Earnhardt. “The further removed we get from that part of our sport and the history, the harder it is for people to really appreciate what some of those guys back in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s did, and what they meant to the sport. So, their opportunity to get into the Hall of Fame becomes more challenging.
“I like the move that the Hall of Fame made to kind of ensure those guys are going to get their due and get in there, but I’d hate to be a voter. I really would. It’s not easy, and they got a tough job. So, whatever happens, happens. I don’t mind waiting. If I need to wait or have to wait, if that’s how it works out for me, I’ll wait. I have a lot of years to watch a bunch of other people go in there that deserve to be in there. However it goes down, it goes down.”
A 15-time most popular driver, Earnhardt sits on the ballot with 26 career wins in the Cup Series that include being the first rookie to win the All-Star Race and two Daytona 500s. He also has 24 wins in the Xfinity Series and two championships. While Earnhardt knows the numbers are debated, he is just as proud of what he’s contributed to NASCAR off track.
Earnhardt and his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller are co-owners of JR Motorsports, which fielded a truck for Cole Custer when he ran his first full season. They’ve fielded cars for drivers like Chase Elliott, William Byron, Brad Keselowski, and Martin Truex Jr. (back when it was Chance 2 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.). The company has also been a stepping stone for crew chiefs like Greg Ives and Kevin Meendering, engineers, and even PR representatives.
“JR Motorsports and even Chance 2, we had so many great people come through our program that have gone on to become successful at the next level, and I’m really, really proud of that,” said Earnhardt.
Earnhardt also looked at his role within the sport very seriously.
“Just being a good ambassador,” said Earnhardt. “Staying in contact with [Mike] Helton, [Steve] Phelps, [Steve] O’Donnell, letting those guys know that anything they need me to do that helps our sport grow, please call me, please let me be the guy you think of first. I always wanted to do everything I could to help grow the sport, and one reason is, if this all goes away, those wins and those accomplishments mean nothing. If this all disappears one day, it’s not going to matter who did what.
“For a guy like Michael Waltrip to be proud of two Daytona 500s, the sport needs to be healthy. For Jimmie Johnson to be proud of his five in a row, championships, the sport needs to stay healthy. It needs to have fans that are passionate about it, lots of fans. I always thought about that. It’s great that I won this race or did that or accomplished that, but none of it really matters if nobody cares about (NASCAR) one day. So, I’ve always tried to do what I could to make sure that people love this sport, and I feel like that’s something I’m equally as proud of.
“I knew that I was never going to win seven championships; I might win one. So, I had to work in other ways to make a difference. I knew I needed to make a difference some other way than just being a straight-up champion and multi-time champion. I had to find other ways to make an impact, and so I tried to just be the best ambassador I could be.”