Dale Earnhardt Jr. admits he often seeks affirmation from those around him, and there is none higher than being selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The two-time Daytona winner headlines the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class announced Tuesday. Earnhardt, who won 26 races in the Cup Series, two Xfinity Series championships, and is now finding success as a team owner, will be joined in enshrinement with Red Farmer and Mike Stefanik.
“It’s really emotional just sitting here talking about it because I feed off of affirmation, someone saying that was a great job, somebody patting you on the back and appreciating you,” said Earnhardt. “I really, really feed off of that, and that affects me heavily in the workplace and my home life and everything I do. I think that’s why I had so much great success with (crew chief) Steve Letarte, because he was such a great cheerleader and no matter what was happening or how frustrated he might be with me, he knew how I reacted to that affirmation, and knew if he wanted to get the best out of me, that would be the best route to take.
“There’s no greater pat on the back or tip of the cap than this from the industry, from the people that vote, who are all sprinkled throughout the industry and sport.”
At 45, Earnhardt is relatively young when it comes to a Hall of Fame induction, which is why he was comfortable patiently waiting for whenever his name was called. The 15-time Most Popular Driver was selected in his first year on the ballot.
Earnhardt was also fine with just being a nominee. When the list was released in early April, Earnhardt felt honored to be included with drivers like Stefanik, Harry Gant, and Ricky Rudd.
“I was good,” said Earnhardt. “I was good with just being on the sheet, and I was going to be happy with that.
“It’s such a great feeling that someone feels like that I made an impact on the sport, and I know my numbers. I know the wins, the lack of a championship, I know what my numbers are, and I feel like I was chosen based on that but also on the impact off the racetrack and being an ambassador for the sport.
“I really didn’t take that seriously early in my career, when I was young, it was just about me and racing, and all those things. But as I got older, I really started to think about the health of the sport, and what I could do to make sure the sport was better every day, appreciated by everybody, so I started to take that more seriously. That’s why I got into broadcasting and wanted to continue to be a part of the sport because I felt like even in that role, I could have play in growing the sport and continuing pushing the sport in the direction it needs to go.”
Putting the weight of the sport on his shoulders with the Earnhardt name, and especially after the death of his father, the younger Earnhardt didn’t try to be someone he wasn’t. There was a point in his career, Earnhardt revealed, when he started to think he was going to win seven championships, and then maybe not even one. He wasn’t going to win 100 races, or perhaps even 40. And he wasn’t going to be Dale Earnhardt, in success or personality.
So, Earnhardt thought about what he could do. Thus, he became the best ambassador for NASCAR he could be.
“I wasn’t always perfect, but I started focusing in those areas and being accessible, being available, being accountable, and I feel like I did a decent job at that,” said Earnhardt. “I don’t want to sit here and measure it, that’s up to someone else, but I’m pretty happy with that part of my career when it comes to the impact I had on the sport.
“I’m very happy with it considering the fact that I didn’t have the success that my father did, but yet I was able to move the needle a little bit in the mainstream media doing particular stories with Rolling Stone early in my career and stuff like that.”
In all, Earnhardt has 50 wins as a driver between the Xfinity and Cup Series. As a team owner, he has won three Xfinity Series championships under JR Motorsports and was a part of two with Chance2/DEI. Earnhardt has also been involved in helping the NASCAR development of drivers like Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, and William Byron. This summer, Earnhardt begins his third season as a broadcaster with NBC Sports.
“It’s such an honor,” Earnhardt said of being a Hall of Fame selection, “and now I’m looking forward to whatever that experience is.”