Some enterprising PR person figured out that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his 500th major NASCAR start this weekend. To come up with that stat, one has to combine his Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series starts, but it’s a legitimate and appropriate number since much of Earnhardt’s success and popularity has come because he’s raced in both series.
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He’ll be making his 385th start in Sprint Cup to go along with 115 runs in the Nationwide Series.
All told he has 41 wins, 143 top-five and 221 top-10 finishes. He has 18 Cup victories, good enough for 37th on the all-time winner’s list. He has 23 wins and two championships, in 1998 and 1999, in the Nationwide Series. He’s ninth on the Nationwide career win list even though he’s become an infrequent starter in recent years. And he’s the only third-generation NASCAR champion as his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt won the Sportsman title in 1956 and his father won seven Cup championships.
“I take a lot of pride in what I’ve accomplished in these past 15 years or so,” Earnhardt said in his team’s weekly release. “I’m proud of the two Nationwide championships, the wins in both series and having worked with a lot of talented people.”
But what Earnhardt has accomplished in his lifetime covers far more than just what he’d done in major league NASCAR races.
He’s been one of the best ambassadors a sport could have. He’s maintained a large and loyal fan base that has stuck with him through some thick and a lot of thin.
Surely he finds some things not to like about NASCAR and the way officials run things, but he’s careful not to abuse his popularity and create big stinks that can’t be perfumed over.
Still, there’s probably never been an interviewer who walked away from a meeting with Earnhardt and felt like he or she has gotten anything less than the whole truth. That’s often not the case with some of the sport’s other superstars.
When I think about Earnhardt’s career, I think about the first time I interviewed him. If my memory serves me correct, it was in 1995 or 1996, at a press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. was there to help introduce one of his sponsors, NAPA, as the sponsor of the track’s fall race.
Dale Jr. came along, I assume, to learn about the side of being a race driver that can be as important as what one does behind the wheel on race day.
He wore a plain white shirt and black pants. He may have even had on a tie. I can’t remember.
He sat in the back of the room, at a table with a group of reporters.
His dad was in big demand, as always, but particularly on this day because he’s just survived a nasty crash at Talladega. He tried to hide his soreness, but it looked as if it pained him greatly just to push open the glass door to the meeting room.
A couple of local reporters and I quizzed Earnhardt Jr. during lunch about his career plans, posing the obvious question – Did he plan to follow in his father’s footsteps?
He seemed uncomfortable, and a bit shy, discussing that subject, and over the years since, I think he still finds that a hard one to answer.
I also thought about a series of real one-on-one interviews about his interest in NASCAR history. This was before he hosted his “Back in the Day” show on SPEED.
In one of our conversations, he talked about his interest being piqued by a tape he’s bought off a souvenir rig back in his childhood days.
I told Earnhardt I had a copy of that tape at home. He asked me if he could borrow it.
He looked me directly in the eye and said, “I promise I’ll get it back to you.”
The next time I saw him, he had the tape in his hand, and thanked me for letting him watch it.
People often wonder aloud how “Junior” maintains such a large fan base even as he’s become a backmarker in many a race.
Maybe it’s because fans, who often figure out the important things better than some journalists, have picked up on the side of Earnhardt that I’ve seen more than once over the years.
He may be a multi-millionaire and enjoy the lifestyle that comes with it, but at the core, I believe he’s just as much as “salt of the earth” person as his dad was, and his granddaddy and scores of other racers who took up the profession simply because they loved to race.
Maybe his second 500 starts will produce the kind of results he and his fans have been waiting for.
Rick Minter is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991 covering motorsports as well as serving as a bureau chief. From 2000-2008 Minter focused on racing exclusively, traveling the NASCAR circuit as the paper’s motorsports writer. Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.