Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wonders How His Distant Dad Would Have Reacted to NASCAR Hall of Fame Nod

The late Dale Earnhardt Sr. proved to be one of the toughest drivers in motorsports history. As a father to Dale Earnhardt Jr.? He turned in a series of DNFs. 

Throughout his life, Earnhardt Jr., 47, has attempted to understand why his father constantly put his career before his parenting responsibilities. And come to terms with the personal pain it caused him, at times, while growing up in Kannapolis, North Carolina. 

As the son prepares to join his father as a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, he must have thought: “What would dad think of me now?”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t lift a bucket ‘full of (expletive),’ as a youngster and his father had ‘this look of pure freaking disappointment’  

2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Dale Earnhardt Jr. serves as a guest speaker during the 2018 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Charlotte Convention Center on Jan. 19, 2018, in Charlotte, North Carolina | Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Good question. 

Twenty-one years have passed since the elder Earnhardt died following a final-lap accident at the 2001 Daytona 500. If he had not died in what appeared at first to be a nonsequential crash, Earnhardt Sr. would be 70 years old. Would the “The Intimidator” have mellowed? Become more attentive to his close family?  

Perhaps, he would have continued forging a better relationship with his NASCAR-driving son. 

To Junior, their relationship bottomed out during his teenage years. He spoke of his feelings during a candid discussion with the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in 2018.

As a teenager, he felt like a “disappointment.” 

“I always felt like when I was younger, I kind of let my father down,” Earnhardt said. 

He recalled one time when he was 12 years old. His dad ordered him to lift a bucket “full of (expletive)” and move it. Junior tried and failed. Senior called over his son’s friend and told him to try, and he “gave me this look of pure freaking disappointment,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like that was our relationship in a nutshell for most of my teenage years.”

Earnhardt Jr. on his father’s final 3 years: ‘Were as good as it could get’

It wasn’t until the younger Earnhardt developed into a two-time Busch (Xfinity) Series champion in 1998 and ‘99 that his father-son relationship started turning a corner. 

“So, he put me in this car on a whim and a prayer, and we ended up winning a (Busch) championship. Two in a row,” Earnhardt told Rogan, reported by USA Today. “So, he is thinking, ‘Damn! This little (expletive) can drive a car!’ And that’s when our relationship completely changed. 

“We talked about life, girls, everything but racing. We didn’t talk about racing much, which is fine. And it was awesome.” 

In 2000, the younger Earnhardt earned a full-time Winston Cup ride, providing more chances to bond with his distant dad. Few children forget the scars of neglectful parenting, but Earnhardt, at least, discovered some closure during the final years of his father’s life. 

“So those three years – ’98, ’99, ’00 – were as good as it could get,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt’s evolution: From unmotivated teen to NASCAR Hall of Famer  

On the eve of entering the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 21 with the long-winded Red Farmer and the late Modified icon Mike Stefanik, Earnhardt sat down with The Charlotte Observer. He spoke about his hall-of-fame father.

“I think he’d be pretty proud,“ Earnhardt said. “No question he would. I don’t know what words he would use, but he would make you feel important. … There’s a hint of frustration, though. The further we get away from it, the harder it is for me to really know exactly what he might think or say. … It’s harder to figure that out. And then, the wanting to know becomes stronger.”

What would The Intimidator think of his son today?

Earnhardt evolved from an unmotivated adolescent to a popular and respected racer in his 20s and 30s, to a husband, father, NBC Sports broadcaster, co-owner of JR Motorsports, and NASCAR Hall of Famer in his 40s.

One significant difference between father and son? Junior does not plan to be a distant dad.

“My girls and racing — those two pieces don’t fit together,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t want to be putting myself in danger that might take me away from them, or to enjoy their growth, or just physically being in another place throughout the year. Being gone all the time — I hated that when I didn’t have kids. I couldn’t imagine it now.”

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