In 1974, 23 year old Dale Earnhardt was just another young racecar driver. He had not yet won any of his seven Cup Series championships, or even run his first Cup Series race. He was still five years away from being named the 1979 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.
But on October 10th of that year, Earnhardt got an even more important title than ‘rookie of the year’ or ‘champion.’ He became Dale Earnhardt Senior.
The Path to the Cup
Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a kid, but wouldn’t start racing until he was 17. That is when he began racing with his brother Kerry and sister Kelley driving a 1978 Chevy Monte Carlo. At that point, he was not seriously considering racing as a career.
Dale Jr. credits two things for changing his mind: Getting fired from his dad’s dealership and not wanting to work a regular nine to five.
Junior was an express tech at his dad’s dealership. As he tells it, he was no ordinary technician. He was the best in all of North Carolina, he claims. Junior has said he could change a car’s oil in 8 minutes, as long as he was being paid on commission.
One day, after a dispute about being clocked in for an after-work meeting, Junior was told by his manager to take a few days off. He knew his dad wouldn’t let him go home, and, after calling him, tried to return to work.
His manager wasn’t having it. He told him to pack up his tool box and go home for good.
Even Dale Sr. was surprised that the younger Earnhardt got fired, so he put him to work helping build his sister, Kelley’s race cars.
That push into the professional racing world set him on the right path, but Earnhardt still didn’t have huge expectations for his career.
At that point, he knew he wanted to race, but his dreams were surprisingly conservative even as a young racer.
“I hated working for a living. I didn’t want to work for a living,” Earnhardt said. “This is silly, but the way I thought in ’97, ‘Man, if I could get into an Xfinity car and win just one race, what do I need to do just to say … that’s enough to keep me around?’
By the end of 1997, Earnhardt Jr. had only scored one top 10 finish and ended up 47th in the points after running 10 races in the Busch Series (Now called the Xfinity Series). After the modest start, teams and sponsors weren’t exactly knocking down his door with offers for a full time ride.
“I had no idea what to do,” Junior said according to the Charlotte Observer, figuring his racing career was over.
At the same time, unknown to the 22 year old Earnhardt Jr., Dale Senior was considering his son to replace Steve Park in the Busch Series number 3 car. Figuring his racing career was over, Junior was shocked when he walked into the garage and was greeted by a blue number three car with his name on it.
Earnhardt Jr. said he started cursing out Crew Chief Tony Eury and his son, Tony Eury Jr., who were both laughing beside the car.
“I honestly thought they were trying to play a prank on me.”
That is when things started to click for Junior. After winning a few races in the series, he finally started to believe he had a real future in the sport.
“When I won my first few races in the Xfinity Series, I thought, ‘Well, all right, I’ll be able to keep a job in this sport for a while because of this little bit of success I’ve had,’” He said.
Earnhardt would go on to have his best two years statistically in racing. He won 13 races and the 1998 and 1999 Busch series championships. It was time to jump to the big time.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the move to drive full time in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2000 and immediately made his mark on the sport. He set NASCAR’s modern era record for fewest starts before his first victory when he won at Texas Motor Speedway in only his 12th start.
He followed that up by becoming the first rookie to win NASCAR’s all-star race and scoring his second win at Richmond. He finished out his rookie year with those two wins, two poles and five top ten finishes.
Junior’s rookie season was highlighted by firsts and records, but his second year in the Cup series would begin with tragedy.
The first race of the 2001 NASCAR season, The Daytona 500, should have been a highlight of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s young career. A win here in only his second season would set the stage for a strong sophomore season, and he was in second place and fighting for the win in the final lap at the biggest race on the calendar.
Instead, Junior’s second place finish became a footnote to a turning point in NASCAR’s history.
With a large lead group pushing for the lead in the final lap, Dale Senior and Sterling Martin, among others were battling just behind Junior and race leader Michael Waltrip. Contact between Marlin and Senior sent the iconic black number 3 car up the track before being hit by Ken Schrader and colliding head on with the wall.
The impact would kill Dale Earnhardt Sr. almost instantly. Shrader was the first to the Intimidator’s car and knew right away the seriousness of the situation. But he couldn’t bring himself to say the words.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do was face Richard [Childress] in the infield care center after the crash.” Schrader said per The Florida Times Union. “He pulled the curtain back and asked what was going on. I told him it was bad. He wanted to know if Dale was going to be out for a while and I looked at him and said, ‘No Richard, it’s really bad.’ I couldn’t say it.”
The incident kicked of a host of changes to safety regulations in NASCAR, including mandatory use of the HANS device and full faced helmets.
After the incident, Junior had moderate success racing while he and his family mourned his father’s death, but fared no better than his third place finishes at Fontana and Dover. Then, just five months after the incident, Junior returned to Daytona for the first time.
The race would become one of the most memorable of Juniors entire career. He would start 13th but lead 116 laps and win by just .123 seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip. Earnhardt Jr. would later say of that win per Sporting News:
“For my family it was closure. All of us really had been in this real funk, mourning my dad’s passing, so it was really just a gray time for all of us. Even dad’s peers — everybody was hurting a little bit. I think it brought a little sunlight into everybody’s lives I guess.”
Junior in his Prime
One of Junior’s favorite career moments came later that same year at the Pepsi 400. Earnhardt took his 88 car from sixth place all the way to first in the final laps for an incredible display of dominance. He knew he had something special that race, stating simply, “The car was just faster than anyone’s car.”
2003 saw Earnhardt’s best finish in the points standings. Even though he only won two races that year, he was consistent, netting 21 top tens, and 13 top five finishes. The third place finish would be the closest he ever came to a cup series championship.
2004 brought his highest win total in a season with six, but Junior only finished fifth in the points. Among his six wins was another one of Earnhardt’s favorite moments on the track: Winning his first Daytona 500.
“I remember we short pitted, and the race didn’t have a lot of yellows in it. And for whatever reason the short pitting was netting us chunks of yards and distance on the race track.”
The strategy paid off, and soon the race was down to just Earnhardt and Tony Stewart. Earnhardt was struggling to pass Stewart, until, eventually, he was able to get inside and side draft him for a pass. The next 20 minutes, he said, were some of the most stressful of his career as he held off Stewart for the win.
After the six-win season, Earnhardt Jr. made a move he has since admitted was a big mistake.
Up until that point, Dale’s uncle, Tony Eury Sr., was his crew chief. But, coming off the successful season Earnhardt Jr. decided he wanted to make a change and move on to a different crew chief.
“I regret that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That’s probably my biggest [regret] in motorsports as a driver, was that decision because it did nothing and it made our relationship a challenge to repair. Like I say, we’d won a lot of races together and he had been a big reason why I even got in the XFINITY car to begin with. He was my biggest supporter and we had won so many races together.”
About his younger self throwing away a good thing, Earnhardt Jr. said, “I got confused there a while thinking that I knew better than anyone else what was best for me.”
After parting ways with Eury, Junior wouldn’t have a multi-win season for the next nine years.
In 2014, Dale Earnhardt Jr. started the year off by winning his second Daytona 500. It would be a sign of things to come, as the ‘14 and ‘15 seasons represented a resurgence for Junior and he racked up 28 top five finishes and seven wins in that two-year stretch.
Unfortunately, the 2015 Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix would be Earnhardt Jr.’s final win of his career.
After his best two seasons in nearly a decade, 2016 was a hopeful year for Junior Nation. At 41 years old, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have a few more shots to get that elusive championship win. The year would end up being a major turning point in Junior’s career, just not how he envisioned.
After a crash in Michigan, and then the ‘big one’ at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was diagnosed with symptoms of a concussion and was eventually ruled out for the season.
He would miss exactly half the season, 18 races, because of the concussion, and it was reasonable to wonder if it would end his career.
It was a long wait for Junior and fans alike, but in December of 2016, he was finally cleared to race in the 2017 season.
Junior started the 2017 season with a number of questions hanging over his head. Should he have called it quits when he was first diagnosed? Would he be able to regain his form and be competitive after missing half a season? Would the season indeed be his last?
Those questions would be answered early on. After Junior crashed out at Bristol, he announced that the rumors were true. His 18th full time season would be his last. It was also clear, at that point, that Dale would not regain his 2015 form with three DNF’s and only one top 5 finish in those eight races.
As for if he should have retired before the season, Earnhardt made it clear he wanted to end his career on his own terms.
Besides countless tributes and gestures throughout his farewell tour, Earnhardt Jr.’s final year could be summed up as a disappointment. Junior didn’t win any races and his best finish was fifth at Texas Motor Speedway. He also had seven DNF’s. Still, no one could deny his importance to the sport as his pole position and late run at Talladega produced a huge spike in interest during a year in which ratings were a constant struggle for NASCAR.
He and his team just couldn’t put together a complete race for most of the season, and the concussion concerns never left him, as he made clear before Talladega.
“This was one I was worried about, in the back of my mind I was a little concerned,” Earnhardt said. “You can’t win the race if you race scared. I’ve raced scared here before and you don’t do well when that happens, so you have to block it out and take the risks and hope it’s not your day to get in one of those accidents and it wasn’t.”
Even though Texas was his best finish, arguably the highlight of Junior’s final year on the track was his final run at Talladega.
After qualifying on the pole for his first time ever at the track, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had high hopes for his last race there. Fans knew Talladega was probably Junior’s best chance at a win in what had been a disappointing farewell season since he had won there six times.
Even though he couldn’t make it seven, he made it a race to remember. After starting from the front, bad timing on a pit stop forced him to the back of the pack.
As Earnhardt and a large group of cars was entering the pits, there was a wreck behind them that closed pit lane, forcing any car that pitted to take a penalty.
Later in the race, Earnhardt again got hit with a penalty as he entered the pits too fast. At that point, the day was looking to be just another disappointment on Junior’s rocky road to retirement.
However, Dale wasn’t done. He fought back to the front in the final stages of the race.
After a few late cautions, “The Big One” finally struck. Junior was involved but just barely escaped with his car intact.
After barely avoiding two more wrecks, Earnhardt looked destined to have his best race of the year on the biggest stage.
The fans erupted in cheers each time he emerged from a crash unscathed, but there was still a lot of work to be done.
“I don’t know if I’ve used up all my luck or not,” Junior said during the final red flag.
Ultimately, it was not meant to be and he fell short, finishing seventh. But Junior Nation will never forget the show he put on in his final race at Talladega.
Earnhardt Jr. missed the playoffs, and finished out his career with a 25th place finish as his friend Martin Truex Jr. won the championship at Homestead.
Retirement: Junior’s plans for the future
Looking forward, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will still be around the sport. He is the co-owner of JR Motorsports, will run a few Xfinity races next year and signed on to be a part of NBC’s broadcast team.
“This is probably the first real job I’ve had in 20 years,” Earnhardt said during a conference call shortly after NBC made the announcement.
“I’m really excited to be able to announce this news. A lot of folks have been asking what the next step was for me. It’s a thrill to be able to partner with NBC.”
Junior got a taste for it when did a couple of guest stints in the booth for FOX and NBC for NASCAR races and described it as an “adrenaline rush.”
“I remember the feeling when I went in the booth and the feeling that I had afterwards. I had no idea how enjoyable that was,” Earnhardt said. “I knew immediately then when I was going through my injury that I definitely wanted to pursue this as an opportunity if there was interest.”
Fans of the 14 time most popular driver in NASCAR will miss seeing him on the track, but him bringing his genuine, down-to-earth personality to the booth will make for must-see races any time he is a part of the team.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs up his helmet with 26 career wins, making him one of the most successful drivers to never win a Cup Series championship. Only five drivers have more recorded wins without winning a Cup Series title according to ESPN. He also is among the top 20 drivers in modern NASCAR history in wins (20th), top fives (19th with 149) and laps led (19th with 8,195).
Yet, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sure, there were racers with far more success, but there were none that meant more to the sport.
His impact is tied to his popularity, and his popularity to several things. By all accounts Dale Jr. is a great guy. He’s straightforward and transparent, and connected with the fans both in person and social media. But the biggest factor is something he had no control over: His father.
Some think his popularity was mostly due to simply sharing a name with one of the greatest drivers of all time. That certainly helped, but it goes deeper than that.
When Dale Sr. died, the NASCAR world was devastated. As fans were mourning, Dale Jr. was mourning too. Everyone could see their pain in in the younger Earnhardt, and that shared pain formed a bond. Junior winning at Daytona wasn’t just healing for the family, it was healing for all of NASCAR.
Junior earned the fan’s love for the rest of his career, winning races and growing into a beloved personality. But that connection began as a relationship of necessity; NASCAR needed healing.