I watched as Dale Earnhardt Jr. squinted into klieg lights around midnight on Feb. 18, 2001. Eight hours earlier, his father had died in the last turn on the last lap of NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500.
At a time when he needed so much comforting himself, the younger son of the racing legend stood on his grandmother’s front porch and tried to comfort the rest of us. At that moment, I saw a kid begin to grow into a man.
That man, now 43, is retiring from Cup Series racing after 19 seasons. I’ll remember some of his 26 victories, a few of his 15 poles, but almost no details of his seven top-10 points seasons. His wrecks and spins since 1999 will be lost among everyone else’s. Rather than anything on-track, the image I’ll always carry is of him standing outside 1412 Sedan Avenue in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
He faced the media that awful Sunday night to help millions of devastated fans. That compassion was always his most admirable trait. Over 19 seasons, we came to know a kind and sensitive man, one who wished good for everyone and felt no entitlement because of his name. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Junior was so popular because he wore his heart on his sleeve and cared so much for others.
Consider his suggestions for retirement gifts from NASCAR tracks. When asked, he said he didn’t need anything, certainly not anything “silly” (his word) that he’d store and forget. He wanted donations for groups helping those in need, checks for concussion research, health-related programs for children, money for scholarships and school supplies, race tickets for disadvantaged youth, funding for animal shelters. With him, it was always substance over style.
The most surprising quality about Junior wasn’t anything race-related. Rather, it was that he never grasped how important he was, how many people he made happy, how his character and humility carried the sport for two decades, how he showed that a superstar athlete could also be a good man. His sister, Kelley, occasionally had to remind him of his place within NASCAR — witness those 15 Most Popular Driver awards. His wife, Amy, (expecting their first child, a daughter, in May) says he worked so hard because he didn’t want to disappoint anyone. He’s bright, articulate, thoughtful, utterly unpretentious and refreshingly open-minded. Underestimate him at your risk.
Finally, this: Junior was the last active link to what many consider NASCAR’s “golden age,” back when the Intimidator ruled the land. Wisely, the son never tried to be the father redux. Instead, his choice of jeans, T-shirts, beer, football and Chevys made him beloved in his own right.
Racing has always persevered after losing its stars, willingly or otherwise. Now, after losing another, it must persevere again. This time, though, it just feels like a greater loss.