CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a self-described lottery-winning moment before he ever hit NASCAR’s big time. He had become a regular competitor on the weekly and touring Late Model circuit, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. was looking for a full-time replacement for Steve Park in its Xfinity Series ride for 1998.
Earnhardt Jr. recalled that his brief, nine-race Xfinity career to that point was middling at best, and that his Late Model record was a modest four wins in 159 starts. Yet when Dale Earnhardt approached crew chief Tony Eury Sr. to discuss the team’s direction, his suggestion hit close to home.
“Dale came to me and said, ‘what do you think about Dale Jr.? Do you think he’ll ever make a driver?’ ” Eury recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t been to Myrtle Beach (Speedway) to watch him race and I don’t have time to go to Myrtle Beach, but I see you spending a lot of money on some other people, why don’t you spend it on your own kids? Try it and see. That’s all we can do is see.’
“So we tried it, and it worked.”
From those modest beginnings sprang a NASCAR Hall of Fame career. Tony Eury Sr. and Jr., both of whom played pivotal roles in Earnhardt Jr.’s early years in racing, sat front and center Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center to watch their former pupil’s induction.
Earnhardt Jr. eventually made Eury Sr.’s suggestion look prophetic. The two combined for 13 wins and a pair of Xfinity Series championships in consecutive years, launching him onto the national scene.
“I always thought he would be one of the greats,” said Eury Jr., who was atop the pit box for two of his Cup Series wins and one of his Xfinity triumphs. “I’d seen the talent that he had early, when we started the Xfinity stuff. Luckily we were in a position as a company where we were kind of finishing in the top five in points … so I told him, ‘look, just don’t hit nothing and you’ll have this championship in the bag. We’ll do what we gotta do and you’ll learn how to drive these cars and we’ll go.’
“He wasn’t really successful in his Late Model career, but he was consistent. He’d run top five all the time so you knew he could take care of his equipment. That’s what he did. It’s kind of like he says in his videos, in ’98, it was like, ‘wow, we did it.’ We weren’t supposed to do it, but we did it. That was cool, but in ’99 it was more like, let’s get serious about this. We’ve got to repeat. We’re supposed to do this.”
That combination and confidence carried into the Cup Series in 2000, with Earnhardt bringing the Eurys along for the ride. And Eury Sr. drew special mention during Earnhardt’s speech as one of the role models who held him accountable in the early stages of his career. “I think about you all the time, and every day I live my life to please people like you,” Earnhardt said, noting how the elder Eury grounded him as the sometimes chaotic career began to skyrocket.
The Hall of Fame stage gave Earnhardt a chance to thank his longtime crew chief, but it also presented the opportunity to mend a heartache from more than 15 years ago.
“For a long time there, I spent day after day with that man, racing in the Xfinity Series and then the Cup Series with the Bud car,” Earnhardt said after the ceremonies. “One of my biggest regrets, and I’ve said this before, one of the biggest regrets in my professional career was thinking that making a change in his position as a crew chief was what we needed to do. Me supporting that decision is without question my biggest regret in my racing career because I was not only coming off a successful year in 2004, but I needed his leadership and so did the team.
“So it was so nice to be able to look him in the eye and tell him that I think about him every day and the decisions I make in my life are influenced by him, and that he matters, at least to me. I’m glad that I got to share that with him.”
It was one of a multitude of stories on a welcoming, snowy night, from Julie Stefanik’s heartfelt speech honoring her late husband, Mike, a true Modified Tour ace. And Red Farmer stoked the racing hot-stove season with vivid tales pulled from his decades as a pioneer of the sport.
The Eurys had their own stories, either shared themselves or from the recollections of others. Those yarns included the contract negotiations that Earnhardt first had with team owner Rick Hendrick and the almost comically trivial write-in request – that his car’s side skirts always be painted to match the body color.
But the Eurys were also able to share their perspective on Earnhardt Jr.’s growth into his multi-faceted life as a husband, father, team owner and an insightful broadcaster. That public-facing role with NBC Sports marks a long-haul departure from the bashful young driver that they had first urged the Intimidator to promote.
“The media couldn’t get him to talk to them, and just gave short answers to everything. Real shy, didn’t want to talk, wouldn’t look at the cameras,” Eury Sr. said. “Then for him to turn into the TV guy that he is now, it’s really kind of amazing how he’s changed. I tell you, I’m really, really proud of him as a race car driver, but I’m really proud of him the way he’s doing his TV stuff and his Download (podcast). I couldn’t be any happier.”
Earnhardt Jr. has long been a steward of stock-car racing history. Now it’s a role he’s further able to embrace as a NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee.
“I think he’s always been kind of timid to be that guy, but I told him tonight when I saw him that one of the greatest things he can do is be an ambassador in this sport,” Eury Jr. said, noting his show of support for the Stefanik family before the Hall of Fame proceedings. “… Stuff like that goes further than you can ever imagine with people. Wins are great, titles are great, but the kind of person you are means more than anything.”