I first met Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Charlotte when the massive NASCAR national media corps showed up for preseason interviews in January 1998. In between formal sessions with the sport’s biggest-name drivers and owners, we were given the option to move into a nearby smaller room to speak to a young man who was about to make his full-time debut in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series.
The 22-year-old Earnhardt Jr. sat by himself at a table waiting to see who — if anyone — would essentially initiate him with this “process.” The chance to sit down one-on-one with the Earnhardt Jr. two decades later is a rarity, and I smile thinking how much everything has changed since.
I distinctly remember that first interview, however, and how he spoke quietly, looked down a lot and seemed a bit overwhelmed and unsure at the process. I concede, I did this mainly as a favor to his father’s public relations team. In retrospect, I’m glad I did.
In speaking with Junior, I discovered his seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion father made him work at his family’s car dealership — his first job was sweeping floors — that he attended military school for a bit and that he had played soccer and had some artistic ability.
At the time Junior only had a handful of starts in NASCAR’s former Busch Grand National series — those coming at strategic venues no-doubt well thought out by his dad — an assortment of short tracks, 1.5-milers, a road course and a couple big tracks.
His first XFINITY start came three weeks after a DNQ at Nashville, Tennessee, in a No. 31 Chevy owned by his dad, with his uncle, Tony Eury Sr., as the crew chief and sponsored by “Gargoyles.” He completed only 87 of the 320 laps and finished 39th, victim of his car’s oil pump failure. Another young driver, a future close friend of Junior’s, and an eventual Cup champion, Matt Kenseth, finished 11th in that race.
Up-and-coming young drivers may find some solace to know that the future two-time Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt finished 39th, 39th and 38th in his first three NASCAR national series races.
In many respects, I’m guessing his father didn’t mind the lessons in tough luck and pick-yourself-up attitude. And Junior was a good student.
Not only did he pick himself up, but he also raised several trophies beginning the very next year. He found himself. And he found Victory Lane, winning seven races in 1998 on the way to the series championship, and six the next year winning a second consecutive title and establishing himself ready to be a big-time player in the sport’s big stage.
At one of his father’s press conferences after the seven-time champion won an early race in Daytona Speedweeks, he stood in the Daytona International Speedway press box high above the track’s famous front straightaway and was constantly turning away from reporters so he could stare out the wall of windows overlooking the track, where XFINITY Series cars were turning practice laps.
I got a kick out of his timing. He was far more interested in his son’s — whom he called “June Bug” — lap times and drive lines than answering questions about his own latest, greatest win there. After a few questions, he got the timing down so that he could answer a question then turn around toward the track just in time to proudly watch his son zoom around the tri-oval. He had that full-on, mustache-extended Earnhardt grin looking down at the track.
Those were the platinum hair and rock n’ roll halcyon days for Junior — winning races, working with his dad, enjoying all the perks of success and stardom.
“Sometimes we’ll go places and it’s like I’m walking with Elvis,” this year’s Monster Energy Series championship favorite Martin Truex Jr. once said of his good friend Junior.
Everything changed for Junior, however, that gut-wrenching day, Feb. 18, 2001 at the Daytona 500.
Sitting across the track high above in the Daytona press box, I remember too vividly watching Junior park his car after finishing runner-up to Michael Waltrip in the 500; a 1-2 showing for his dad’s team. Immediately after climbing out, Junior started running down pit road toward the infield care center — wanting desperately to understand the situation. It was absolutely heartbreaking.
There was no transition time really for Junior or for the fans — those that had cheered for his dad, immediately shifted their adoration to the son — absolutely willing to change driver allegiance to support this young man in the midst of a tragedy.
For all the good intentions, it was a lot for a 26-year-old to have thrust upon his shoulders.
And as Junior prepares to step out of the driver’s seat now 16 years after that fate-twisting Daytona 500, the grace, strength and resilience he showed in handling that unimaginable grief has been as important to him as the talent he has shown behind the wheel as a NASCAR champion, multi-time Daytona 500 winner and 26-time Monster Energy Series race winner.
Earnhardt Jr. has always reminded that his deep drive to win and succeed was not because his father had, it was because he wanted to — although obviously their presence in NASCAR has understandably been linked.
And for some, Junior’s decision to step away from full-time competition now affords many the “goodbye” fans never got to give his father — the thank you.
This is one of the most significant and emotional transitions the sport has ever experienced.
For Earnhardt, this life-changing shift should make him feel proud and will one day make his children — the first, a daughter, due in early May — feel proud, too.
He has handled the immense attention and fame with class and remained competitive and championship worthy through it all.
Something Junior told me for a story 15 years ago still resonates every bit today.
“(Being an Earnhardt) has opened a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I’ve never wished I was anybody else. Sometimes it gets a little bit over the top, but I just kind of ride it out. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Somewhere high above, his dad is smiling. And so will people everywhere Junior looks Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway as he makes his last full-time start.
He has lived the spectrum of emotion with millions of eyes upon him and here’s hoping he gets out of the car Sunday feeling deservedly tremendous and accomplished for a career he should be proud of.
And it will be difficult to tell who is more grateful, Junior for the love and support, or NASCAR fans for the lessons in grace and strength.