Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced on Tuesday that he is retiring after this season, has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award for 14 years running. Last year, he skipped the season’s final 18 races due to a concussion. Didn’t matter. Fans still voted for Junior.
He never won a championship in NASCAR’s top circuit — now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Didn’t matter. The likes of Jimmie Johnson — 7 titles! — Jeff Gordon (3) and Tony Stewart (3) never won the hearts of racing fans like Junior did.
“I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt Jr said Tuesday during a press conference announcing his retirement.
He inherited his fame while still earning it. The son of seven-time champ Dale Earnhardt, Junior finished second at the 2001 Daytona 500 — the same race that took his father’s life, after Earnhardt crashed into a wall on the final lap. Five months later, he returned to the track where his father died, and won the Pepsi 400, in his Budweiser car, in front of a delirious crowd. Michael Waltrip, who won that tragic Daytona 500 but couldn’t celebrate, finished second. After crossing the finish, Waltrip cheered as if he were the champion, and embraced Earnhardt Jr. His father’s loss still weighed on him. “He was with me tonight,” Earnhardt Jr., now 42, said afterwards. “I don’t know how I did it. But he was there.” The storybook performance endeared him to the nation.
He’s extraordinary wealthy, part of racing royalty. But with his down-home southern drawl, Earnhardt Jr. never lost his everyman vibe. His fans watched him grow from a son beset by tragedy, to a party-happy superstar, to a middle-aged man ready for marriage (he wed Amy Reimann on New Year’s Eve, 2016).
Earnhardt has taken stands not traditionally in line with NACAR’s core white, working-class base. Many fans fly the Confederate flag, with great pride, atop their RVs at races across the country. In the summer of 2015, when the flag debate raged in the wake of a white supremacist murdering nine black worshipers at a Charleston, S.C. church, Earnhardt spoke out against the flag. “I think it’s offensive to an entire race,” he said. “It belongs in the history books and that’s about it.” Many of the same fans who disagreed with his position voted him the most popular driver anyhow.
Earlier this year, a fan asked Earnhardt Jr. over Twitter to react to President Trump’s controversial immigration ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Earnhardt Jr. noted that his own family immigrated from Germany in the 1700s to escape religious persecution. “America is created by immigrants,” he wrote. Some of his fans may have offered a different response. But they’ll vote him most popular driver this year too.
On the heels of a Wall Street Journal article that detailed NASCAR’s struggles, the sport could ill-afford to lose its biggest draw. Attendance and ratings have declined. Earnhardt Jr., said he intends to remain active in NASCAR in some capacity, potentially inspiring a future generation of personable, charismatic drivers.
“I want to be part of the future of this sport for many, many years to come,” he said at his retirement press conference.
If NASCAR’s lucky, their new drivers will race like Junior.