The subject on my mind is as difficult to ignore as it is ever-present in NASCAR.
Though I am not a card-carrying member of his “Nation,” did not throw my fandom to him when his father, my driver, died in 2001, or vote for him in any NASCAR contest (i.e. All Star Fan Vote), I cannot help but find myself drawn to this driver.
Of course it is Dale Earnhardt Jr. of whom I write.
Dale Jr. is the embodiment of so many millions of people’s dreams. He is the last tie to the hero they still worship, the legacy of his father’s hard work.
As the son of Dale Earnhardt, himself a boy introduced to the NASCAR audience by his father, it was easy to see the pride a father had in his son. Earnhardt wanted to leave his son a legacy – Dale Earnhardt Inc. – and watch the American Dream personified in the guise of his son.
Dale Jr. is a good guy, too. He’s well spoken and friendly. He understands the sport and his father’s and his place in it. He is aware of the importance of the fans and seems to know that they kept him where he has been in recent years.
With two Busch Series championships to his credit and 18 career Sprint Cup wins, Dale Jr. had a promising start and an obvious link to his father’s talent.
But once his father’s death took its toll on Dale Jr., he found other things besides racing to occupy his time. He lost his way a bit. His career stalled and it seems to be supported by fans’ dollars at the souvenir trailers rather than by wins and contention for a championship.
Dale Jr. had no one with whom to identify when his world stopped on Feb. 18, 2001. Kyle Petty, perhaps more than anyone else, may be the closest to relate to what Dale Jr. experienced.
But the difference was, and always will be, that Petty never lost his father in the beginning of his career and Dale Jr. did. That one fact makes a remarkable difference.
Dale Earnhardt’s fans collectively placed their staunch fandom for him on his son. And Dale Jr. had already begun to amass fans in his own right.
But the Earnhardt fans were and are a special bunch of people who were loyal to Earnhardt and saw him as their hero.
Dale Jr., however, is the man who keeps these fans loyal after all this time. People are inexplicably drawn to him. There is no other explanation. His statistics of late are lackluster and disappointing at best, yet he continues to draw the Most Popular Driver moniker and keeps the “trinket trailers” humming.
I’ve been on record for years that I am not a member of the “Junior Nation.” It’s not that I didn’t like the man, but my loyalty was reserved for his father alone.
After my six-year hiatus from the sport I returned to have an all-inclusive attitude about NASCAR. I liked and admired every driver in the circuit – including Dale Jr.
I’ve even been critical of Dale Jr. in the past as well as defended him. It was my opinion Dale Jr. was not giving 100 percent to his racing career, preferring the celebrity that led to stints on MTV Cribs, his own night club and other pursuits that kept his mind too far away from his main career – which is to drive a race car successfully.
But I also understood that the emotional toll of losing his father, plus being thrust into the limelight to shoulder the grief of Earnhardt’s inconsolable fans, would be enough to make anyone “off.”
I’ve seen a different Dale Jr. in recent years. Since paired with crew chief Steve Letarte he has shown marked improvement He made the Chase in 2011 and has been among the top five in points for the entire season.
The bottom line is, whether Dale Jr. ever scores another victory, he has more than succeeded in NASCAR’s top series.
Fictional character Tex (voiced by H.A. Humpy Wheeler) from Pixar’s “Cars” movie stated to Lightning McQueen when he lost the Piston Cup, “Lightnin’, there’s a whole lot more to racin’ than just winnin’.”
It seems that Dale Jr. has exemplified that over the last several years. He’s won races, but more important, he’s won hearts and fans and provides the sport with a hero for a different era.
A win seems imminent, only a matter of time. The detractors scoff at that, but I’m not alone in my belief. His consistency is definitely a factor as is Dale Jr.’s renewed sense of confidence and focus.
What I’ve learned is Dale Earnhardt Jr. is impossible to get out of my system.