Dale Jr. embraces moment of affirmation as Hall of Fame inductee

Dale Earnhardt Jr. started the day more preoccupied with a Tuesday morning dental procedure than whether he’d be enshrined forever in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. When the broadcast began to air, though, the anxious feelings kicked in.

Earnhardt was announced as the top vote-getter in the Class of 2021, joining Modified master Mike Stefanik and the legendary Red Farmer as the newest NASCAR Hall of Fame selections. Though Earnhardt said he was just pleased to be nominated, his name appeared on 76 percent of the ballots, a validating feeling for a driver who says he thrives on the power of positive reinforcement from his peers.

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“Even just sitting here right now talking about it, it’s really emotional because I feed off of affirmation, someone saying that was a great job, somebody patting you on the back and appreciating you, and I really, really feed off of that,” Earnhardt said. “That affects me heavily in the workplace and in my home life and everything I do. I think that’s why I had so much success with (former crew chief) Steve Letarte because he was such a great cheerleader, no matter what was happening or how frustrated he might be with me, he knew how I reacted to that affirmation and he knew if he wanted to get the best out of me that that would be the best route to take.

“There’s no greater pat on the back or tip of the cap than this, from the industry, from the people that vote who are all sort of sprinkled throughout the industry and the sport. … It’s such a great feeling that someone feels like that I made an impact on the sport.”

If his root canal from earlier in the day wasn’t unpleasant enough, Earnhardt was teed up for media rounds where he had to size up his career and what it meant. “This is so uncomfortable talking about yourself,” Earnhardt said between questions, managing a laugh.

When pressed, he did so humbly, keeping his career in perspective. Earnhardt scored 26 premier-series wins, including two Daytona 500s and a half-dozen raucous Talladega triumphs. Add in his two titles in what is now the Xfinity Series and the credentials stack up nicely against an entire field of Hall-worthy nominees.

MORE: Class of 2021 nominees

Tack on — and this is a big add — the fact that he helped carry the weight of his family legacy and the sport’s hopes as a budding 26-year-old star after the 2001 death of his father, the iconic seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. It may rank among the biggest intangible accomplishments in NASCAR’s history.

Earnhardt acknowledged that his lack of a NASCAR Cup Series championship weighed against him, but said he hoped his candidacy was valued for his role as an ambassador for stock-car racing. That meant taking NASCAR to places it hadn’t been — the pages of Rolling Stone, the pop-culture glitz of MTV, a music-video appearance with Jay-Z riding shotgun — all while keeping true to his racing roots as a fan of the sport’s heritage.

Tuesday provided more validation for not only the on-track accomplishments, but his entire ethos. Earnhardt says he lives for positive feedback, but he’s also intent on bettering himself, on making his career and his life one worth appreciating.

“I think every day you wake up and you want to make somebody proud,” Earnhardt said. “… Every day that I get up, I want to do something that makes my wife very proud of me. I seek that everywhere I go.”