October 10, 1974 • Kannapolis, North Carolina
Dale Earnhardt Jr. possesses one of the most familiar names—and faces—in the world of stock-car racing, but he has yet to become a top-ranked champion driver for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, better known as NASCAR. Much of his fame stems from his family name: he is the son of the late Dale Earnhardt, one of NASCAR's most beloved stars. Since his father's death from a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, the younger Earnhardt has had to make his own way: as a driver, as a grieving son, and as a celebrity. He has won several major races in NASCAR's premier racing series, the Nextel Cup (formerly known as the Winston Cup), including the Daytona 500 in February of 2004. Earnhardt is one of NASCAR's most popular drivers. He has a devoted following among race fans, many of whom started out as fans of his father. However, Earnhardt has, in his own right, captured the hearts of millions with his racing talent as well as his easygoing, regular-guy personality.
Earnhardt was born into a racing family. His father, Dale Sr., known as the Intimidator, was a seven-time Winston Cup champion and winner of seventy-six races in a career that spanned more than twenty years. Dale Sr. went into racing to follow in his own father's footsteps; Ralph Earnhardt was the 1956 champion of the NASCAR National Sportsman division, now known as the Busch series. "I wanted to race—that's all I ever wanted to do," Dale Sr. proclaimed in a profile of the Earnhardts at NASCAR.com. Dale Jr. clearly inherited his father's passion as well as the racing mentality and incorporated it into his own life. At NASCAR.com Dale Sr. recalled taking his son gokarting when the boy was about ten years old. At one point as he raced around the track, Dale Jr.'s wheel was clipped, the go-kart spun out of control, and the boy went flying. His concerned father raced across the track, but the boy jumped up and immediately asked about his gokart. Dale Sr. recalled, "The only thing he was concerned about was 'Where's my go-kart?' That was a pretty awesome sight, I'll tell you."
"There's nothing better and nothing I'd rather do than be going around the track in a race car. That's something I've fallen in love with and don't want to give up for a long time."
The lure of racing was so powerful in the Earnhardt family that Dale Jr., his sister, Kelley, and his half-brother, Kerry, all entered the sport. Kelley Earnhardt told Lee Spencer of the Sporting News that when they were growing up together she would not have guessed that her brother, Dale Jr., would become a racer: "He spent a lot of time playing with Matchbox cars, but he was not aggressive ... and didn't take risks." At first Earnhardt joined another branch of the family business, going to work at his father's Chevrolet dealership. However, by his late teens he had begun racing. Earnhardt and his brother Kerry pooled their resources to buy a 1978 Monte Carlo, which they rebuilt and raced in the Street Stock division. After two seasons, Earnhardt moved up to the Late Model division, in which he raced for three seasons. In 113 races in that division between 1994 and 1996, he won only three times, but he astounded onlookers by finishing in the top ten ninety times. His relationship to his legendary father earned him no special treatment during the early years; the teenager used his own money and was expected to secure his own corporate sponsors, companies that help finance a racer in exchange for the display of their logo on the car or on the driver's uniform. Just as his father had done, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to work his way up.
By 1997 Earnhardt had done just that, moving up to NASCAR's more prestigious Busch series. At that point, everything changed. "I was having fun driving late-model cars. Just messing around," he recalled in Sporting News. "When I started running Busch, I got serious. Everything about that was cool. Sure, I was seeking my father's approval. I wanted to make him proud. I'd been trying to do that all my life." Getting serious made all the difference for Earnhardt, who won the Busch series championships two years in a row, in 1998 and 1999. He won thirteen races during those two years, finishing in the top five in almost half the races he entered. When he entered the Busch series full-time, Earnhardt began driving a car owned by his father. In a fitting tribute to Ralph Earnhardt, who started the family racing dynasty, Earnhardt adopted his grandfather's number and has been racing in car number eight ever since.
For the 2000 season Earnhardt moved up to the Winston Cup circuit, NASCAR's most prestigious division. He quickly established his rookie season as one to remember, winning his twelfth race as well as his sixteenth. That season he also won the Winston, NASCAR's all-star race, becoming the first rookie to do so. He enjoyed a friendly rivalry with his father, who pushed his son toward success, not by easing off on him, but by riding him hard, just as he did every other racer in the field. Earnhardt entered his second season in the Winston Cup with high hopes, planning to build on his successes from his rookie year. He believed his chances were good to come up victorious in the Daytona 500 in February. On February 18, 2001, during the final lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt's father was involved in a serious multi-car crash. Earnhardt finished second in the race, but no celebrations followed. Dale Sr. was rushed to the hospital; it was determined later that he had died instantly from the crash. The Earnhardt family, as well as millions of devoted fans, were devastated.
NASCAR is among the most popular spectator sports in the world, and its popularity is growing. New fans may benefit from a "crash course" on racing to explain such things as the complicated system of point earnings, the various flags used in racing, and the origin of the term "stock car."
What does "stock car" mean? When NASCAR began in 1947, the stock cars came straight from the supply, or stock, of a car dealer, giving fans the notion that they, too, could start their engines and race to the finish line. NASCAR soon realized that regular street cars were not made to endure the tough conditions of racing, and driving teams were sneaking around the rules to make modifications anyway, so the rules were changed to allow for extensive customization of racing cars.
How fast can the NASCAR cars go? The available power of a typical NASCAR engine is around eight hundred horsepower. The cars are capable of speeds in excess of 230 miles per hour (mph), but recent NASCAR regulations require the installation of a restrictor plate between the carburetor and the engine. This plate minimizes the airflow into the engine and limits its power to about 450 horsepower. Even with the restrictor plates, NASCAR racers reach speeds approaching 200 mph.
How do the cars handle turns at such high speeds? Nextel Cup cars are fitted with a unique suspension spring, shock absorber, and alignment setting at each wheel to help them with turns. This construction allows the drivers to turn to the left with very little movement of the steering wheel. When not on a curve, however, drivers have to turn the wheel to the right in order to go straight.
What do the various flags used during races mean? The green flag starts the race or resumes it if there has been a caution period. The yellow flag signifies a problem on the track, including an accident, debris, or light rain. The caution situation usually lasts for at least three laps, during which drivers cannot pass the pace car. The white flag signifies that there is one lap remaining in the race; the black-and-white checkered flag means that the leading car has crossed the finish line, and the race is over. Other flags include the red flag, which signals that everything, from drivers to pit crews, must come to a halt. This flag appears at the start of a rain delay or in the case of a serious accident. A black flag waved at a particular car means that driver must return to the pit, perhaps because the car is emitting smoke or losing parts. The black flag with a white "X," shown to drivers who received the black flag but did not go to the pit, signifies that the driver is disqualified until he "pits." The blue flag with an orange diagonal stripe is an optional flag signaling drivers to use courtesy in situations when the leaders are approaching from behind and trying to get past.
What is pole position? This term refers to the number-one starting position. The driver who posts the fastest time during a qualifying round earns the pole position, giving him the best possible starting point for winning the race.
How do drivers earn points? The winner of each NASCAR race earns 180 points, with the second-place finisher earning 170. The point totals of those finishing in places three through six decrease by five-point increments; in other words, the third-place finisher will get 165 points, and number four will get 160. The points for positions seven through eleven go down in increments of four, and for positions twelve through forty-three, the points go down by threes. Bonus points are also available in each race, with drivers earning five points for every lap they lead and an additional five points going to the driver who led the most laps. When the Nextel Cup series gets close to the end of the season, the point totals are adjusted for the series leaders in what is called the "Chase for the Championship." At the end of the season, the driver with the most points is the Nextel Cup champion.
All eyes were on Earnhardt in the aftermath of the crash; close friends observed that the young man seemed to grow up overnight, thrust into maturity by the loss of his father. Unable to grieve privately, Earnhardt and his family had to cope with the fans' sorrow as well as their own. One week later, Earnhardt returned to the driver's seat to race at the North Carolina Speedway. That race ended badly, as Earnhardt was slowed in the first lap by a minor accident. He struggled over the next couple of months, performing poorly in many of his races. In July he headed back to the site of his father's death, the Daytona International Speedway, for the Pepsi 400. His stepmother, Teresa, did not attend the race, unwilling to return so soon to that arena. Earnhardt somehow put aside his grief, focused tightly on the track in front of him, and emerged victorious. "I will be crying sooner or later," Earnhardt said of his feelings for his father after the emotional victory, as quoted in the NASCAR.com profile of his family. "I dedicate this win to him—there ain't nobody else." Earnhardt went on to two more significant victories that season, winning at Dover, Delaware, in September, the first race after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and winning in October at Talladega, the site of his father's last first-place finish before his death. Earnhardt finished the 2001 season ranked eighth in points (racers are awarded a certain number of points for each race based on their finish), with nearly $6 million in winnings.
While Earnhardt had a mediocre season on the tracks in 2002, his popularity soared. Sports Illustrated 's Jeff MacGregor speculated on the phenomenal adoration of his fans: "Until the time of his
During the 2003 season, Earnhardt performed better than he had in any prior year. He won two Cup races, at Talladega and Phoenix. He had thirteen top-five finishes, and finished in sixth through tenth place another eight times. His final Cup standing was third place, his highest finish since entering the Winston Cup division. He continued to win the fervent admiration of fans, who voted him NASCAR's most popular driver; he won more votes, 1.3 million, than the rest of the top-ten drivers combined. Earnhardt began the 2004 season with a flourish, winning the celebrated Daytona 500 on February 15, almost three years exactly after his father's death on the same track. Whether he goes on to have a career that matches his father's stellar performance or simply remains one of a handful of top NASCAR drivers does not seem to matter to his fans. After his Phoenix victory in late 2003, a reporter asked Earnhardt how things might change if he became a Winston Cup champion. Earnhardt considered the question, according to AutoWeek magazine, and responded, "I don't know if it would be a whole lot different. Fans cheer for you not because of wins, but ... because of who you are, what you represent, and your attitude."
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Lambert, Pam. "Junior Achievement." People (March 8, 2004): p. 71.
MacGregor, Jeff. "Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Nation." Sports Illustrated (July 1, 2002): p. 60.
McCarther, Mark. "Junior's Got a Brand New Bag." Sporting News (August 25, 2003): p. 20.
Spencer, Lee. "The Ties That Drive." Sporting News (August 6, 2001): p. 48.
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