These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine Dale Earnhardt Jr. working in a field other than motorsports. During his NASCAR career, Junior proved to be a talented and popular driver; in retirement, he’s still pretty plugged into the sport as both a team owner and a member of the media. Despite that eventual success, he wasn’t always a natural behind the wheel.
Yes, you read that correctly. While he eventually blossomed into one of NASCAR’s brightest stars, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s early driving career was nothing short of a disaster.
Dale Earnhardt never planned on becoming a NASCAR star
Since his father was a NASCAR legend in his own right, it’s easy to assume that Dale Earnhardt Jr. always hoped to climb behind the wheel of his own stock car. Initially, though, that wasn’t the plan.
Since Dale Earnhardt Sr. dropped out of school to start his racing career, he ensured that his son got an education. Junior actually earned an automotive degree and started working at his dad’s dealership; if things went according to plan, he would work his way through the ranks as a mechanic. Fate, however, had another idea.
Dale Jr. ultimately lost his job at the dealership and started working more on his sister’s late model car. Eventually, he started getting behind the wheel himself and noticed that it helped him connect with his famous father.
“The only reason I raced was to get closer to my dad,” Earnhardt Jr. told Graham Bensinger. “That was the only way I would. Nothing I did would register with him … and finally, when I started racing, and I won a couple of races, I noticed we would talk about it, and he’d come in the shop and want to know what happened. And so I got more and more into [it], like ‘hey I gotta, I want to do racing’ because it gets me closer to dad.”
Junior’s first few times driving weren’t exactly a smashing success
Even if he didn’t initially plan on becoming a stock car star, Dale Earnhardt Jr. eventually found his way behind the wheel. His first few times in the driver’s seat, however, weren’t exactly successful.
“Honestly, no one thought racing was in his nature. He was only 5’3″ when he got his driver’s license and was always the unassertive type,” Tom Friend wrote in an old ESPN: The Magazine piece. “His older sister, Kelly, taught him to ride a bike, but he flipped it his first time down a hill. When she later tried teaching him to drive a stick shift, he nearly crashed into a barn.”
Those incidents, in isolation, could be enough to turn anyone away from driving. Dale Jr.’s problems, however, went beyond a few mishaps.
“His daddy wanted him to have no fear and had him steer the family car on the highway when he was 12. But the boy just seemed afraid,” Friend continued. “He had a go-cart that had been passed down from Grandpa Ralph, but his mother remembers him refusing to enter races. For fear of finishing last.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. eventually overcame those issues and became NASCAR royalty
Those early struggles and fears couldn’t stop Dale Earnhardt Jr. forever, though. He eventually hit the track and grew into one of NASCAR’s biggest stars.
While he never reached the same heights as his famous father, Dale Jr. did spend plenty of time on the stock car circuit. He won 50 races across both series of NASCAR competition, even claiming two Busch Series championships; the driver also won the Most Popular Driver title on 15 occasions and turned that popularity into a $300 million net worth.
Even though he no longer drives full-time, Junior hasn’t left racing completely behind. In addition to owning JR Motorsports, he’s a rising star in the media sphere; Earnhardt hosts the Dale Jr. Download and plays a role in NBC’s motorsports coverage.
Even if he wasn’t your favorite driver, it’s impossible to overlook Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s impact on NASCAR as we know it. That’s a bad performance for a guy who flipped his bike, almost crashed into a barn, and was afraid to get behind the wheel.