The day after NASCAR inducted its latest class into the Hall of Fame, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pondered what it would mean to be honored by his peers in such a fashion.
“Well, that would probably be the ultimate accomplishment for the sport — is to make the Hall of Fame,” Earnhardt said. “To be considered worthy of that, I’m not sure my performance on the track stands up to the qualifications. But just maybe I can change that over the rest of my career.”
So what will Earnhardt’s ultimate legacy be?
At 37, his body of work — 18 Sprint Cup victories, including the 2004 Daytona 500, three finishes of fifth or better in the points standings and two Nationwide Series championships — certainly falls short of the achievements of the current 15 Hall of Famers.
Unlike his father, Dale Earnhardt, who amassed seven championships and 76 victories, or Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon (four titles and 85 wins, third on the all-time list) and Jimmie Johnson (five consecutive titles and 55 wins) who will be shoo-ins on their first vote, Junior’s resume is a tad thin.
But, as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver is quick to point out, “There are other reasons to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.
“Whatever I’ve done and meant to the sport, hopefully that will stand up. Hopefully, that will mean something when it comes down to it. That has to be the ultimate. That would be an awesome, awesome deal.”
As a driver, Earnhardt has been voted most popular by the fans nine times. As a team owner in the Nationwide Series, Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports has been extremely successful. He has an astute eye for discerning talent and has offered many drivers an opportunity to showcase their talent in top-of-the-line equipment.
Off the track, Earnhardt’s entrepreneurial skills have shone through, as well. He became the first driver to start a production company, Hammerhead Entertainment, that's allowed him to develop original programming and will expand his creative involvement in years to come. Earnhardt is also growing his Whisky River nightclub holdings. But, ultimately, statistics define any competitor’s career.
Earnhardt’s best seasons were under the Dale Earnhardt Inc. banner. Seventeen of his wins and three finishes inside the top five in the points standings were achieved in the No. 8 Chevrolet.
However, Earnhardt’s on-track performance picked up considerably last year under the direction of crew chief Steve Letarte. While Earnhardt understands that “the only person that can truly really help me get to where I need to go obviously starts with me,” he found in Letarte someone who believes in him.
After the 2010 season, when he finished outside the top 20 in the points standings for a second consecutive season, Earnhardt acknowledged his “biggest problem is my confidence.” But Letarte, whom Earnhardt describes as a “cheerleader,” helped rebuild the driver’s confidence.
The transformation was almost immediate.
“I know what I’ve done in the past and I know that I’ve outran these guys that I compete with each week before and I just have to remember that the potential is there,” Earnhardt said just after Letarte was appointed his crew chief.
“I believe in myself, but there’s a swagger you have to have. The reason to believe in my abilities was there . . . that (swagger) was missing.”
While the swagger has returned, the number 129 — races since his last win — hangs over Earnhardt’s head. His popularity is undeniable. But he must regain his status as a weekly contender for his legacy to be judged on performance alone.
Team owner Rick Hendrick accepts responsibility for not offering Earnhardt the best possible pairing of crew chiefs sooner. But Hendrick recently offered Junior a second chance to prove himself. In 2011, the driver’s contract was renewed for an additional five years beyond this season. Hendrick said Earnhardt and Letarte “haven’t shown their potential yet” but believes that will change this year.
“The confidence level, the communication — I just wish we had put them together early on. I had no way of knowing it would be as good as it is,” Hendrick said. “I just feel like they’ll win races, and they’ll be back in the Chase. I think they’re going to be better than they were last year.
“They made a huge a step last year to where they were at the end of the year. We hit on some things at the end that he really liked. It’s amazing how close these cars are but how different the setups can be from driver to driver. Sometimes it takes a while for all of it to fall into place.”
Earnhardt will turn 38 in October. That's about the time some drivers, such as Earnhardt mentor Dale Jarrett, hit their prime. Jarrett finished in the top three for three seasons before winning the 1999 title at 41.
And Earnhardt has the next six seasons at Hendrick Motorsports with the best possible resources and personnel to turn around his program.
Certainly, Letarte is up for the challenge.
“Without a doubt, I have no problem being the guy that takes the authority and sets the schedule,” Letarte said. “That’s my job. That’s the seat I have. That’s the desk I own. That’s the power Mr. Hendrick has given me to run this race team.
“I have Dale Earnhardt, one of the best guys to sit in a stock car, in my opinion, and I can’t wait to get to Daytona with him.”
Neither can Earnhardt. Though he believes winning “the biggest race of the year” is “the greatest feeling,” he also knows there's more at stake. A victory in the Great American Race would not only end his 129-race losing streak but could provide the catalyst to rewrite his legacy.
And there’s no time like the present for Junior to prove he’s much more than NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.