What is now is what it was supposed to be all along.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was tagged to be the son who carried on his father’s legacy. That would not be easy because Dale Earnhardt won seven championships and transformed into a racing icon – not just in NASCAR, but also for all of motorsports.
It was a huge heritage left for his son.
But after his father died in a crash at Daytona in February of 2010 slowly, after the grief subsided somewhat (not sure it has ever gone away), many of those legions of fans whose intense loyalty was given to “The Intimidator” gave the same to his son.
Their feeling was, and remains, that if the father was gone it made perfect sense to transfer that loyalty to the son – a winner and a two-time Busch Series champion.
And now, after many years, at last I think they have been rewarded. Earnhardt Jr. stands today as a confident, winning driver who, in the midst of his best season ever, has an opportunity to win a championship.
He has been, for over a decade, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. But for so long it’s been thought that he has been something of a disappointment for his followers, known as the “Junior Nation.”
That’s not the case this year.
With his victory at Pocono, Earnhardt Jr. compiled his third win of the year.
He is presently No. 2 in points, a mere 17 behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
He is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In fact, at present he is the No. 2 seed.
Simply put, he’s in. He’s a championship contender.
And he’s more than that. He’s a different man.
He has no doubts about himself, his team and his life. In person or on TV, all you have to do is look at him. His eyes are bright; his smile is wide.
No longer does he hold his head down and speak with measured tones.
He will tell you: “Everything about life right now has been great.” And that means professionally and personally.
It did not used to be that way.
There was a time when many thought he would be a competitive bust.
He would be lost in the shadow of his father. Even his most ardent fans found themselves disappointed, week after week.
For seven full seasons after his father’s death, Earnhardt Jr. continued to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
He won 15 races but only once, in 2002 when he finished third in points, did he have a real sniff at a championship.
Many, including me, never believed Earnhardt Jr. was completely satisfied driving for DEI, of which he had little, if any, control.
That was in the hands of his stepmother Teresa. Now consider this: If the son of Dale Earnhardt would think he should have some measure of leadership of the team his father founded, it would not sit well with him if he didn’t get it.
And he didn’t. Earnhardt Jr. stunned the press in Daytona in February of 2007 when he said – as he walked briskly out of the media compound – that he thought he should have ownership of at least 50 percent of DEI.
Few thought that was going to happen. And it didn’t.
So Earnhardt Jr. made the move he believed would be the right one. He left DEI and joined powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.
A happy man, Earnhardt Jr. said he had done the thing that would “win races and championships.”
But for so long it appeared neither was going to be the case.
Earnhardt Jr. won only two races for Hendrick from 2008-2013. His highest points finish was fifth in ’13, a season in which he did not win.
Perhaps the 2012 season was his nadir. Involved in a multicar crash at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. sustained a concussion and had to sit out two races.
That meant he had no chance at the Chase and a championship.
After the winless ’13 season few held hope that Earnhardt Jr. would have anything close to a championship season.
As you now know, that has not been the case.
He already has more wins in a single season than in the previous six combined. To date his top five finishes already match those of the last two seasons – and there are 15 races remaining this year.
But here’s what is most important:
Earnhardt Jr. has ascended to the position he was destined. He is a vastly popular driver, a multiple winner, a championship contender and a very happy, contented man.
He has now found the place for himself that his many fans wanted for him and for which he struggled to find.
And the once powerful DEI, which he departed, is now in the dust, no more than a racing memory.
The son has risen.
He may not be this year’s champion.
But he is already the measure of the driver so many expected of him.
And he revels in it. As he should.