An Open Letter to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Dear Dale Earnhardt Jr.,

I don’t know if you’ll ever see this. We’ve never had much of a connection given my relative newness to NASCAR’s media center.

But I just want to take a moment to say thank you – on behalf of myself and many others.

Because without you, we might not still be watching the sport.

You see, Junior, I was risen to be a fan of your father, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

I screamed my four-year-old heart out when his 20 years of trying and frustration came to an end in the 1998 Daytona 500, and nearly got into a fight at recess on the Monday after he rattled Terry Labonte’s cage at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1999.

Nearly every little boy has a hero. They grow up wanting to be strong like Superman, or crafty and unique like Spiderman. They want to beat the villains, save the damsel in distress and be praised by the people.

But I was a little different. My hero didn’t wear spandex and bright colors. He wore a GM Goodwrench fire suit. And he wasn’t fictional, at least not entirely. ‘The Intimidator’ was a real person.

That meant I could genuinely reach and relate to him. But that also meant I could lose him.

That’s exactly what happened on February 18, 2001.

I was so young back then, but I can still remember that day vividly. My childish mind couldn’t grasp that Dale Sr. might be hurt, so I was instead left celebrating the fact that Michael Waltrip and you had finished first and second.

It wasn’t until a short while later, when my mother received a phone call and burst into tears, that I understood what happened.

I didn’t watch much racing during the early stretch of the 2001 season after that. I couldn’t. It just didn’t feel right.

Try as I might to enjoy it, I was just numb.

I think a lot of us were.

It wasn’t until after we lost Dale Sr. that I came to understand that he was a hero to so many more people than just myself.

Everywhere I looked, it seemed like I saw people in mourning. The local news showed the vigils and tributes. Coverage of practice, qualifying and races were filled with memories and emotion as drivers, crews, broadcasters and fans tried their best to come to terms with the sport’s loss and move on. The third lap of every race was ran in quiet solidarity.

Without our leader, we were all left looking to others for strength, hope and validation that everything was going to be okay.

Most of us looked to you.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

It wasn’t fair of us to put that sort of pressure on you, Junior.

Yes, we were all in mourning and needed help. We’d lost a leader and inspiration.

But you had lost so much more.

Your hero. Your father. The man that had inspired you from day one, and led you to the career that you have now.

We had no right to dump our unfair expectations and emotional baggage on you. You could have shunned us all and focused solely on yourself and your family in that time and it would have been perfectly understandable.

But instead, you embraced us.

In what was likely the darkest time of your life, you soldiered on. You, of all people, helped us all realize that NASCAR would continue on okay.

Others helped. Steve Park gave fans of Dale Earnhardt Inc. a moment of bittersweet joy when he won the following week at Rockingham Speedway. Kevin Harvick did the same for supporters of Richard Childress Racing when he won in Dale Sr.’s car at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The year slowly trickled on, and there were brief reprieves where everything appeared to be okay. But we all knew that we would have to get through the July weekend at Daytona International Speedway before we could truly start to move on.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened there, Junior. But I will anyways.

You put together one of the most brilliant drives in NASCAR history, dominating throughout the night and driving your No. 8 Chevrolet to the front from sixth on the race’s final stint to claim an emotional win in the 2001 Pepsi 400.

That moment will forever be ingrained in my memory.

Your celebratory burnouts. The DEI pit crews – and Danny “Chocolate” Myers, of course – rushing out to join you. You and Michael Waltrip embracing on the frontstretch as one of the largest cascades of cheers I’ve ever heard erupted from the grandstands behind you.

My family isn’t one to get emotional, but I think my parents and I all cried that night. Millions of people around the world did, too.

That weekend was challenging for all involved, but in the end you made it one of the most beautiful moments in the history of sport.

We were all searching for a marquee moment that season – a sign that everything was going to be okay.

On a hot July night in Florida, you gave it to us.

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

If you’d never done anything else after that night it still would have been enough, Junior. But you gave us all so much more.

Over the years you supplied so many great memories. Two Daytona 500 wins. The four-peat at Talladega Superspeedway. The first weekend sweep at Bristol Motor Speedway, and a season sweep at Pocono Raceway.

You also did something many feared you wouldn’t be able to do – evolve into your own person.

In the early 2000s it seemed that you were doomed to a life trapped in your father’s shadow. But over the course of your career you came to craft your own tale in NASCAR lore.

With your humble attitude, unique personality and insightful responses you became arguably the garage area’s best interview. Despite spending nearly your entire career as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, you made ample time for fans and sponsors at the track.

While many others in the sport were afraid to speak out about social and political issues, you didn’t shy away from them, often giving thought-provoking responses to questions about them.

Most of the drivers in the sport have stayed guarded on social media, but you opened up to your fans on avenues like Twitter, Instagram and even your own podcast – the Dale Jr. Download.

The expectations most have had of you as a person and driver have often been ludicrously unfair. But to your credit you’ve reached or surpassed nearly all of them.

Sure, you never won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. But your stats – two Daytona 500s, 26 wins and two XFINITY Series titles – would likely be looked upon fondly if you had a different last name.

Of course it’s had a fair share of ups and downs – whose hasn’t? But your career has ultimately been a joy to follow and cover.

(Photo: Brett Moist/NKP)

Later this afternoon that career, or at least the full-time portion of it, will end with the conclusion of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As the green flag draws closer, a flood of emotions, thoughts and feelings are filling the minds of myself and others.

But in the end the timing just feels right.

You have nothing left to prove, Junior. Your career’s been a success. You’ve given us two decades of on-track memories, funny commercials, pop culture relevance and sweet, sweet paint schemes.

You can leave the cockpit knowing that you gave us more than we ever deserved.

Most importantly, you can also do so on your own terms.

That didn’t always seem like a given. You missed most of the last season after the latest in a string of concussions, and there were fears that it could happen again this year. Many worried during the season-opening Daytona 500 when we could see you practicing a concussion test in your car after an early crash.

But you made it. You appear to be healthy, and you have an exciting “retirement” ahead of you.

We’ll all still see you at the track, though it’ll be in the booth with NBC. You’ll still have your XFINITY Series team with JR Motorsports. We’ll all be able to follow along with your adventures on Dirty Mo Radio and your Twitter feed. If the latter is anything like it was when you were out last year, that should be a fun time.

You appear to have found the love of your life with Amy Earnhardt, and if all goes to plan you’ll soon be a father. Instead of allotting time to fans and sponsors, you’ll be able to spend it with your family.

You’ll clearly still be busy next year, but it’ll be a different sort of busyness, with different expectations and rewards. And that’s fine. You’ve done more than enough for those of us that enjoyed watching you in race cars.

Now’s the time for you to do something different, to take the next step.

So thanks for all of the memories behind the wheel, Dale Jr.

Thank you for reminding an eight-year-old boy in Indiana and millions of others that we were all going to be okay in 2001. And thanks for the memorable career that followed that special moment.

It’s been a treat to watch, Junior.

I’m sure the next sector will be too.


  1. salb

    November 19, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    Wow. Beautifully said. Thank you.

    • J.

      November 20, 2017 at 9:52 am

      The first time I ever saw Jr I fell in love with him. TNN (yeah i’m that old) showed a little toe head boy sweeping out his daddys garage stall at South Boston. He was SO cute with his little “Goodwrench” shirt on. I immediately fell in love. That love continues to this day. Sure I’m more like a granny but I will cherish memories of that little boy.
      GOOD LUCK TO YOU AND AMY JR. Cant wait to see ya in the booth!

  2. Mike & pat Naas

    November 19, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for your great memories and emotions shared. We were inspired by Jr to carry on…..enjoy the sport. Thanks for your moving memories.

  3. ANGIE

    November 20, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    That’s beautiful. ..teared up

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