Try to find someone who doesn’t like Dale Earnhardt Jr. Just try.
He’s not the best driver of his generation. He didn’t come close to his father’s legend. He’s leaving NASCAR on a 54-race losing streak. But even so, he left a mark on the sport of NASCAR that might never be matched.
Born in 1974, Junior spent his youth hearing all about his daddy’s exploits, sometimes reveling in them, sometimes rebelling against them. By the mid-1990s, Junior decided he’d give this racing deal a try, and soon found that his famous last name was like a target on his back. Other drivers, assuming he was cruising on Daddy’s money, were happy to try to put him into the wall. As Dale Earnhardt Sr. was winning championships, Junior was racing at small Southeastern tracks under the alias “Dale Smith.” The lessons he learned in those lean years spent fixing his own car and sleeping in parking lots would pay off years down the line.
Junior won two championships in NASCAR’s minor leagues, and moved up to Cup level full-time in 2000, Budweiser sponsorship in hand and expectations on his shoulders. He got off to a fast start, winning his 12th career Cup race and taking the checkered flag at that year’s All-Star Race.
And then tragedy struck, and Junior had to grow up faster than he ever imagined. Dale Earnhardt Sr. died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, with Junior just a few car-lengths ahead of him, and suddenly Junior found himself carrying the entire weight of Earnhardt Nation’s grief and belief.
What’s amazing is, he didn’t buckle, didn’t break. He never won championships, but he always seemed to win the right race at the right time – the first race back at Daytona after his father’s death. The first race, in fact the first major sporting event, after September 11. The 2004 Daytona 500, the where NASCAR was more popular than ever before, and ever would be again. And the 2014 Daytona 500, where he reminded everyone that everyone’s favorite Good Guy could also wheel a car with the best of them.
Junior leaves the sport at a precarious time. Sponsors are bailing, other stars are retiring, fans aren’t showing up or tuning in. But Junior did all he could, repping the sport’s history well and calling out the powers that be when needed. And now, one of NASCAR’s best storytellers moves into the broadcast booth. Racing’s loss is TV’s gain.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. still carries his father’s name, but he stepped out of his father’s shadow long ago. And NASCAR’s going to miss the hell out of him.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.