From afar, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems to be living a pretty sweet life. During his time on the motorsports circuit, he made quite the name for himself; in retirement, he’s continued to find fame, fortune, and plenty of success. Behind the scenes, though, Junior didn’t think that he could ever be number one.
While most children grow up with a high opinion of their parents, the Earnhardts took things to the next level. In fact, when he first hit the NASCAR circuit, Dale Jr. knew that he couldn’t live up to his famous father.
Dale Earnhardt still stands tall as a NASCAR legend, even today
Due to the tragic circumstances around his death, Dale Earnhardt’s legacy can sometimes be reduced to that single day at Daytona. His NASCAR life, however, is certainly worth remembering.
In a similar fashion to what happened with him and Dale Jr., Earnhardt followed in his father’s footsteps and left school to become a professional driver. He made his Winston Cup debut in 1975 and, in 1979, took home NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year title. The following year, he claimed his first Cup Series crown.
Following some leaner years in the early 1980s, Earnhardt made his way back to the podium. He won the Cup Series championship in 1986 and repeated the feat in 1987. In total, he won seven titles, tying Richard Petty for the most all-time.
Beyond that on-track success, Earnhardt also became a larger-than-life character. Thanks to his Intimidator branding and knack for both marketing and merchandising, the North Carolina native grew into one of NASCAR’s biggest names. Whether you loved him, hated him, or had never watched a race in your life, just about everyone knew Earnhardt.
Dale Junior knew that he couldn’t match his father
Under normal circumstances, professional athletes have to be confident in their own skills. Dale Earnhardt Jr., however, was a bit more realistic when it came to living up to his father’s NASCAR resume.
“My dad, he was this massive thing to a lot of people,” Junior explained on the I Am Athlete podcast. “And growing up, watching that, it was awesome, right? My dad was a superhero in my eyes, and I watched people adore him and want to make contact with him and want to be around him. And I thought, ‘Man, that’s awesome.'”
Despite that admiration for his father, Dale Jr. knew his own limits. Try as he might, there could only be one Intimidator.
“But then, when I tried to compete, I knew that I wasn’t going to do what he did,” Earnhardt admitted. “I just knew I wasn’t gonna do it. He was a once-in-a-generation kind of guy, and only Richard Petty had won seven titles. And [Earnhardt Sr.] had come along and did it. … I just knew I wasn’t gonna measure up, as hard as I tried.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. still earned his place in NASCAR history
From a purely on-track perspective, Dale Jr. is right; he simply couldn’t reproduce his father’s legendary career. That reality, however, doesn’t mean that the younger Earnhardt was a failure.
During his time on the track, Junior won 50 races across both levels of NASCAR competition. Although he never earned a Cup Series championship, Earnhardt did take home two Busch Series titles. He also proved to be a fan favorite, monopolizing NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver crown.
Earnhardt Jr.’s success wasn’t limited to the racetrack, though. He’s the co-owner of JR Motorsports and, especially in recent years, has found a home in the media. As the NASCAR Hall of Fame—Junior was a member of the Class of 2021—explained, he “has excelled in multiple racing-related disciplines throughout his career.”
Even if his resume doesn’t exactly stand up to the Intimidator’s, Dale Jr. still did pretty well for himself. At the end of the day, that’s all any father could want for his son.