Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday for what he considers the greatest honor of his career. He just wishes his father could be there.
Earnhardt Jr. is 47 now, only two years younger than his father was when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. The two men were always close. But Dale Jr. would love to hear his dad’s voice today, something that’s become more difficult for him to channel now that nearly 21 years have gone by.
On the eve of his induction, I asked Dale Jr. in our one-on-one Observer interview Thursday what he thought his late father would say about his son joining him in the Hall of Fame.
“I think he’d be pretty proud,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “No question he would. I don’t know what words he would use, but he would make you feel important. ... There’s a hint of frustration, though. The further we get away from it, the harder it is for me to really know exactly what he might think or say. … It’s harder to figure that out. And then, the wanting to know becomes stronger.”
Anyone who’s ever lost somebody close to them knows exactly what he means. The elder Dale Earnhardt would be 70 years old now if he had lived, which is difficult to imagine. He’s encased in amber in our minds at age 49, when he died one of the most public deaths in sports history.
On the other hand, we’ve all watched Dale Jr. grow up around these parts — from self-described unmotivated teenager, to standout hell-raising racer in his 20s, to NASCAR’s 15-time Most Popular Driver, to the husband, father, podcaster, businessman, concussion health advocate and TV broadcaster he is today.
Like a lot of us, Earnhardt feels like time is flying by faster than it used to. “I feel like I just had my 40th birthday party,” he said. “How is it that I’m already 47?”
His life’s priorities have changed dramatically, though, in this decade. He and his wife, Amy, were married on Dec. 31, 2016. From that point forward — and especially after the births of their two young daughters, Isla and Nicole — Earnhardt felt ready to get out of full-time racing.
“My girls and racing — those two pieces don’t fit together,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t want to be putting myself in danger that might take me away from them, or to enjoy their growth, or just physically being in another place throughout the year. Being gone all the time — I hated that when I didn’t have kids. I couldn’t imagine it now.”
Earnhardt is gone some of the time, as a broadcaster for the NASCAR races that NBC is contracted to do. And he does some wild-card assignments for NBC, too — he will be in Los Angeles covering the Super Bowl in February. (Earnhardt, a fan of the Washington Football Team since childhood, had hoped the WFT’s new nickname would be “Warriors,” but said he will be “first in line for the merch” once the new team name is chosen).
What’s next for Dale Jr?
Earnhardt’s life is far less of a “grind” now, as he puts it. And Earnhardt has no intention of turning it up to 200 mph again, which is why he has no interest in returning to racing or dabbling in politics.
“When I retired from racing,” Earnhardt said, “that was kind of a relief for me because I didn’t have to get on that stage every week in front of all those people. I’m seeking a life and a lifestyle where I can do things with Amy, but I don’t have to get on a stage. To perform. To travel and grind. Any type of lifestyle that would involve that, I’m not interested in.”
Earnhardt did recently test-drive a NASCAR Cup Next Gen car at Daytona for Hendrick Motorsports. And while he enjoyed it and believes the experience will help his broadcasting, it also reminded him how far away he is from his old life.
“It’s foolish to think that you could even get in good equipment and show up and compete,” Earnhardt said. “The intensity in the cockpit every minute? You have to be seasoned to that. I would need a whole year, I think, to really get myself back into it mentally.”
That’s not on the agenda, though. Earnhardt’s racing career is done, he said, and it will be celebrated Friday night in Charlotte along with fellow Hall of Fame inductees Red Farmer and Mike Stefanik. The three of them make up NASCAR’s 12th Hall of Fame induction class, whose induction ceremony was postponed a full year due to COVID. Dale Sr. was a member of the Hall’s inaugural class in 2010.
Dale Jr. never won a Cup season championship, while his dad won seven of them. But Dale Jr. did win 26 individual NASCAR Cup races and two Daytona 500s, as well as two overall championships in the sport’s second-tier series. He’s also being inducted into the Hall of Fame for being one of the sport’s top ambassadors, and he’s OK with that.
Dale Sr. and Dale Jr.
While Dale Sr. was a blue-collar driver from Kannapolis whose edges were as rough as sandpaper, Dale Jr. was the rock-and-roll driver who frequently crossed over onto MTV videos and into the pages of Rolling Stone. His trademark has long been his authenticity.
Dale Jr. has always been an approachable good ol’ boy whose thoughtful answers and third-generation racing background made him irresistible to fans and the media. Personally, I’ll always be thankful to him for pushing me in the mid-2000s to start watching this incredible new sitcom.
“It’s called ‘The Office,’ ” he said.
That wasn’t the sort of recommendation you would have gotten from Dale Sr., who I knew a little and was scared of about half the time. His father cultivated a villainous persona on the track — hence the nickname “The Intimidator” — but I’ve yet to meet anyone who dislikes Dale Jr.
As for the near future, Earnhardt has several business ventures going, and a broadcasting career, and his “Dale Jr. Download” podcast has become a staple for NASCAR fans. But he’s purposely trying to slow down a little and savor a moment like this one.
“I don’t know what could happen after this Hall of Fame induction could mean as much,” Earnhardt said. “This one hits a little different. When somebody chooses you — that’s a personal thing.”
For all of his success, Earnhardt Jr. has always been a little insecure.
“I live on affirmation,” he said. “I need somebody to say: ‘You’re on the right path. You’re making the right choice. You did a good thing.’ ”
And as he said that I realized something: Dale Jr. wonders what words Dale Sr. would use today about this Hall of Fame induction. But in his heart, he already knows. He’s done a good thing. That’s what his father would tell him.