Junior touched by Bristol’s gift of an endowment, recalls childhood at the track

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Of all the gifts presented thus far to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he winds down his career as a full-time competitor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Thursday’s announcement by Bristol Motor Speedway officials seemed to truly take the Hendrick Motorsports driver by surprise.

The speedway, which will host the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR), announced the endowment of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Scholarship to be presented annually to the Sullivan County (Tenn.) high school student demonstrating outstanding commitment in the field of automotive technology.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” an obviously excited Earnhardt said after track general manager Jerry Caldwell made the announcement. “That’s awesome. … That is exactly the kind of thing that gets me excited, and I appreciate you guys doing that.”

Officials said the scholarship is for $2,088, a nod to Earnhardt’s No. 88 car number.

As a teen, Earnhardt worked at his father’s car dealership. He lists “Retired automotive service mechanic” on his Twitter bio.

“You have meant so much to this place … we love you, the fans love you here and the Earnhardt name has such a legacy at this place,” Caldwell said. “We felt like it was appropriate for us to be able to honor (Dale) but also be able to honor a bright young student that has an interest in the automotive industry.”

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Earnhardt Jr. is competing in Friday’s Food City 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race as well as Saturday’s MENCS event. It’s an unusual double for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

While he makes a limited number of XFINITY Series starts each year, Earnhardt last ran an XFINITY Series race at Bristol in 2012. He finished fifth.

The two-time XFINITY Series champ has swept XFINITY and Cup race weekends three times — including here in 2004. He also swept at Talladega in ’03 and Daytona in ’04.

But it’s the days spent here as a youngster that seem to resonate more than his efforts on the track.

“Honestly, when I was a little kid, the night race here was my favorite race in the season,” Earnhardt said. “We didn’t get to go to all the races. Typically, we went a lot in the summer. We begged to go to all the races, but Bristol was my favorite for a lot of different reasons, but as a 12- to 15-year-old kid, this place was just the ultimate playground.”

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His father, seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, earned his first NASCAR victory at Bristol in the spring race of 1979. It was the first of nine wins at BMS for the legendary NASCAR Hall of Fame member.

“Dad won a handful of races here, had those trophies in the house,” the younger Earnhardt recalled. “I remember when he built his log cabin he had them all up on this ledge … and they were all up there to the right of the fireplace.

“There are a couple of tracks on the schedule that have unique trophies and they haven’t changed, which I’m glad, and this is one of them. For a while that trophy was taller than I was. I’d been lucky enough to go with Dad to victory lane a couple of times. That was a trophy that I wanted; I felt really, really lucky to have gotten one. I don’t have many trophies in the house but that’s one of them I keep in the living room because when you win here, the driver is a big part of it.

“A lot of tracks, bigger tracks, you need a lot of race car to do well and here you need a good driver; I felt lucky and fortunate to have a victory here.”

In addition to the announcement of the scholarship, Earnhardt was presented with the original Sam Bass painting of the souvenir program cover by the artist.

“I feel like my life has been too good to be true,” Earnhardt said, “and I just have had so much given to me and I feel like this obligation to turn it around and do something for someone else.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve done more and more of that and I feel the joy from that. So I love to see that happen more and more and love to be a part of that more and more.”