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Growing up with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Featured

Apr 26, 2017 Hit: 335 Written by 
Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced Tuesday that he would be retiring at the conclusion of the 2017 Cup season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced Tuesday that he would be retiring at the conclusion of the 2017 Cup season. Mike Comer/Getty Images

You could argue that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and I grew up together, in a roundabout way. 

When fate took that left turn at just the right moment and I got hooked on NASCAR a little over 20 years ago, Dale Jr. was just a kid with blonde hair trying to prove to the fans that he deserved the rides his daddy had given him.

When I attended my first ever live NASCAR event at Michigan Speedway in August of 1997, it happened to be Dale Jr’s fifth career race In the Busch series.

He started 18th, and finished 7th (his best finish in a year where he qualified for 8 races but DNQed in two others – yes, this was back when people DNQed and there weren’t short fields)

With him being roughly the same age as me, I was naturally drawn to Jr. as he made his way up the ranks of NASCAR. The stories of his fun younger days – parties at his house and nightclub, and his rumored affinity for the Budweiser girls – fit well with my narrative as a young man. He seemed like a guy you would want to have a beer with, and that’s not always the case with celebrities/athletes, especially those with a famous name.

I’ll always remember the elderly drunk man ranting and raving in the bathroom at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the season finale in 1998 during a rain delay about how when Dale Jr. got to Cup in 1999, he was going to ram Jeff Gordon into the wall (Jr. ran five 1999 Cup races before jumping in full-time in 2000). Side note: Dale Jr. never did put Jeff Gordon in the wall in his career. Not once, as far as I can tell. So the old man’s prophecy went unfilled).

I’ll always remember the spirited battles Dale and Matt Kenseth had in the Busch series. Before Kenseth was the old guy complaining about those young punks at Penske, he was young too – and he and Dale put on a show every week for two years – with Dale coming out as champion in the series in 1998 and 1999. It was back in the pure days of that series, before the Cup stars made it a practice session. Matt Kenseth and Robbie Reiser vs. Dale Jr. and Tony Eury Sr.

I’ll remember the one year he got to race against his dad in 2000, and how awesome that was to see – haters be damned. Sure, his name helped him get there, but this kid could race. You don’t win championships and races like he did if you can’t. 

I’ll always remember the DEI cars running 1-2-3 at Daytona in 2001 up until that terrible last lap, and how Dale Sr. was blocking to help Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip … doing whatever he could for his son, not knowing what was to come.

I’ll always remember the euphoria Jr. showed when he won at Daytona that same year in the July 2001 race, and can only imagine the emotions he was feeling at that time. Instead of shrinking away in fear at the sight of the place that took his dad, he conquered it.

I’ll always remember Dale’s prowess on the restrictor plate tracks, just like his dad, who could seemingly see the air. Jr.’s acorn didn’t fall far from that tree.

I’ll always remember the site of Jr. in Victory Lane in 2010 in a No. 3 Wrangler car, a beautiful and cathartic moment to see.

I’ll always remember the genuine character of Dale Jr., who never had the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude you often see with big-name athletes. He was always easy-going, likeable, and despite all the haters kept a great attitude throughout his two decades racing in the top levels of NASCAR, whether he was talking to media or chatting with fans and signing autographs.

He never won a championship at the top level, and honestly, I don’t care. And I don’t think he does either. He has lived a dream, and he knows it. Now that he’s got his personal life in great shape, getting married last year at the age of 42, I do not question his decision to go without the sport he’s known his whole life. I applaud it. Life is about changes, and they are often necessary.

He’ll still be involved in the sport, being a team owner in the Xfinity series and even popping into the car for a ride or two. So he’s not quite sailing off into the sunset anyway.

Based on the almost universal show of support he’s received since the announcement, it’s safe to say that almost everyone is very happy Dale Jr. was part of this sport for the past two decades, and his impact on keeping the sport relevant throughout the past two decades cannot be underestimated.

I know you’re not going too far, but we’re going to miss you, Dale.

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Matt Myftiu can be reached on Twitter @MattMyftiu. AutoTechReviews is on Twitter @autotechreview

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 06:55
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Matt Myftiu

Matt Myftiu has been a journalist for two decades with a focus on technology, NASCAR and autos.

Website: www.autotechreviews.com Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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