I’m not sure exactly when it happened. There wasn’t a specific moment or event that caused it, but sometime between May 30, 1999 and last Saturday, October 12 it happened. I, reluctantly, became a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan.
On Saturday October 12 Earnhardt Jr. made his 500th career start at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500, a major milestone in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career that began at the same track in May 1999. During his career Earnhardt Jr. has 19 wins, 111 top-5s, 13 poles, 6 top-10 points rankings, and 10 consecutive Most Popular Driver wins.
Earnhardt Jr. is beloved by masses of fans, but he also has his share of critics and when he first entered the Cup Series I was one of them.
The easiest criticism to throw at Earnhardt Jr. is that he got where he is because of his name. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was not just a racer, he was a 7-time champion, 76-time race winner, and a force-of-nature known by the nickname “The Intimidator.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s name certainly opened doors for him and he may not have reached the Cup Series without his legendary last name. However, every driver who makes it to the Cup Series has had some amazing stroke of luck that helped them get to where they are – they got the right person’s attention, they had access to the right resources, etc. Certainly some drivers may have had a harder path to get to the Cup Series than Earnhardt Jr., but for every driver who made it to the Cup Series someone else working just as hard didn’t catch the same lucky break.
Earnhardt Jr.’s famous name, like any lucky break, could only take him so far. His name could not win races or propel him to the top-10 in the points standings. His name could not win him 2 Nationwide Series (then Busch Grand National Series) titles. It is also not his name alone that has made him popular.
In a time where the drivers and the tracks are accused of being “cookie cutter,” Earnhardt Jr. is authentic. He still speaks with a slow Southern twang, often accompanied with a mischievous grin. Though a celebrity for over a decade, he still occasionally offers an endearing shoutout to his mom and sister in television interviews. While he displays a cool, laid-back exterior, he is also quiet and reserved. He has created his own identity, an image that is very different than his father’s Intimidator image, except for the sly grin.
When Earnhardt Sr. died in February 2001 we barely knew Earnhardt Jr. At the time he had only raced one full season in the Cup Series. What we have come to know about Earnhardt Jr. is that he is extremely private and yet at the time he was forced to grieve in front of an audience of millions of fans. He handled the questions about his father then and still today with incredible poise and grace.
Kyle Petty, also carrying a legendary racing name, often received the criticism that his heart wasn’t in racing. Earnhardt Jr.’s desire is not questionable. Speaking not only to his authenticity, but also his desire for racing, Earnhardt Jr. has said since early in his Cup Series racing career that when he retires from full-time Cup Series racing he would like to step back down through the lower tiers of racing and race just for fun. In a recent Sporting News piece Earnhardt Jr. reiterated that desire.
Further demonstrating his desire to succeed in racing, after the 2007 season Earnhardt Jr. left the team that carried his father’s name, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, to move to Hendrick Motorsports. At the time Jeff Gordon was a veteran 4-time champion and Jimmie Johnson was a reigning 2-time champion. At DEI, by virtue of his statistics and his name, Earnhardt Jr. was the top dog. At Hendrick, Earnhardt Jr. will always follow behind champions Gordon and Johnson on the hierarchy. Staying at DEI or going to Richard Childress Racing or another team where he could have had top billing would have been easy, but Earnhardt Jr. went to and has stayed on at a team where he is not the number one driver, but where he has the best opportunity to succeed.
Earnhardt Jr. is strangely an underdog. While he started his career as a frequent race winner and contender, his career cooled off in the mid-2000s and he has still not regained his early-career success. Because of his popularity Earnhardt Jr. has been forced to answer question after question about his slump and he has answered those same questions, over and over and for years, with remarkable patience. For all of the attention he receives for not winning, much less attention is provided to the impressive record of consistency Earnhardt Jr. has established. Plenty of drivers would have snapped long ago, and some have after arguably less grilling, but Earnhardt Jr. never has.
In general I consider myself neutral, without a favorite driver, instead I cheer for the best story. However, sometimes, when I think no one is looking, I find myself hoping for an Earnhardt Jr. win. After all, I think that would be a great story.