After 18 years, 603 NASCAR races and 26 career wins – including two Daytona 500s – the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is set to retire at the end of the season. Lee Spencer reports on why the man affectionately known as ‘Junebug’ is more than just the son of a NASCAR legend.
Before Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his Busch Series debut at Myrtle Beach Speedway, he was hanging out with his crew in the ‘deer head’ shop on Coddle Creek Highway in Mooresville, N.C.
This was not the Garage Mahal that Dale Earnhardt Inc., would one day be, before it evolved into a museum. The trophies on the walls were of the furry persuasion. The workers wore jeans and t-shirts.
Throughout my hour-long interview with the then-20-year-old, third-generation racer, the eye contact was minimal, if at all. ‘Junior’ was shy. Painfully so. But there was no doubt that racing was his passion, a fire that would fuel one of greatest contributions to NASCAR over the last two decades.
Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. admired his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, he is unquestionably his own man. No, he didn’t grow up working in a factory. He didn’t have to race to put food on the table. And no, he didn’t have to recruit the legions of fans he inherited from his father. But Junior Nation has multiplied and become even more loyal than even Senior might ever have imagined.
Sure, the 26 Cup wins – including two Daytona 500s – and two Busch Series titles have helped energise his fan base over the years. But success alone won’t earn a competitor 14 consecutive Most Popular Driver Awards. Having watched Junior throughout his entire NASCAR career, there has not been another driver who has embraced the sport’s history or embodied an ambassador’s role any better.
Once, while exiting the tunnel at Daytona International Speedway, traffic came to a halt. There was no explanation for the delay until we rolled slowly up to Bill France Blvd. to see that Richard Petty had climbed from his car to sign autographs. Without really asking for it, Earnhardt has accepted the responsibility to carry that torch for the current generation of drivers, much as Petty did for his generation. If there’s a group of fans, Earnhardt will stop. And the requests have been daunting at times.
So have the requests – suggested or not – from the sport. After his father died from injuries sustained in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR turned to 26-year-old Earnhardt. While he was coping with his own loss, he was now expected to be the face of the sport. Despite the weight he carried, there was never a cross word with the media. During droughts in performance, he still made himself available. The humble competitor may have questioned the undeserved attention, but never shirked his duty.
Perhaps that’s why, in good times and bad, Earnhardt has felt at ease with the media. In return, the media has guarded NASCAR’s favourite son. That once painfully shy youngster evolved into a gracious, gentle man.
On Tuesday, Hendrick Motorsports announced Earnhardt would retire at the end of the 2017 season. After he was side-lined for the second half of the 2016 Monster Energy Cup schedule with a concussion, Earnhardt returned to competition for the Daytona 500 in February. Upon his return, he left the door open to review his active status following a few months of competition. Clearly, 24th in the standings isn’t what Earnhardt had in mind when he came back.
If anyone understands life is fleeting, it’s Earnhardt, particularly after watching his father – and his hero – pass away at the age of 49, just seven years older than Junior is today. Before he wed in December to his long-time girlfriend Amy Reimann, Earnhardt took the necessary steps to be cleared to race in 2017. At 42, he was finally getting both lives in order.
“To get approved to race is one thing but to decide to race is another,” Earnhardt said in January.
“Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing. And if you want to keep racing, you have to go into it 100 percent. This is the top, elite series of motorsports in North America and if you’re going to be out there, you can’t do it without 100 percent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions myself and just really buy in. All that was a big process and I’m really happy with what I’ve decided to do.
“Getting married has been incredible. I wish I would have figured this all out sooner. I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts – personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people. And, obviously, in my professional life she’s helped me as a driver. It’s been great. Just hoping to enjoy what’s left of my career, and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I’ll race. [I’m] going to start a family, too, so I have a lot of good things to look forward to. I’m really excited about my future.”
Yes, on Tuesday we learned the end will come sooner than we all had hoped. Earnhardt has more than paid his dues. Now, we owe him the courtesy of respecting his decision. Cheers, Junior!