"He would be proud"
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he isn't sure exactly what his father would say, but he's certain he'd be proud of everything his son accomplished.
"A lot of lifetimes mashed into one"
Dale Earnhardt Jr. lived life in the fast lane from his teenage years to retirement. He still can't believe it's real.
"I never thought I would make it"
Growing up the son of a legend, it seems racing would come naturally to Dale Earnhardt Jr. But it wasn't as easy as you'd expect.
Earnhardt Jr. credits his wife, Amy, with changing his life in countless ways, which helped shape him into the man he is today.
The next chapter
If you thought Earnhardt Jr. would be ready to wind down, think again.
Earnhardt Jr., 47, enters the hall as a two-time Daytona 500 champion, two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and owner of 26 Cup Series wins. He was also NASCAR's most popular driver during his career, winning the award 15 consecutive years from 2003 until his retirement in 2017.
Many people may know him as the son of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Sr., the rough-and-tumble seven-time champion whose hard-nosed style earned the nickname "The Intimidator." Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and his death led to safety advancements previously unseen in stock car racing. But it also pushed America's most popular form of racing into the 21st century without a face, someone who could draw casual fans to their TVs every Sunday, and who could bring tens of thousands of fans to tracks across the country.
Earnhardt Jr. became that driver, though not by his choice. Now, more than 20 years after he was forced into the limelight, Earnhardt Jr. takes his place among NASCAR immortality, including his famous father, who was inducted in the Class of 2010.
"He would be proud": Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he isn't sure exactly what his father would say, but he's certain he'd be proud of everything his son accomplished.
Growing up with the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't easy. With that name comes the pressure of following one of, if not the greatest racer of all time. And when Dale Jr. put on a helmet for the first time and knew it was his destiny, he always wanted to make his dad proud.
"It's really hard to understand what he might say," Earnhardt Jr. told WCNC Charlotte's Ashley Stroehlein. "Whether it's playing sports, or whatever you do, you want your dad to think, 'hey, you did a good job.' And I feel like, without question, he would be proud of this and I would hear him say that."
Dale Jr. said his father wasn't always the most outspoken about his feelings, especially when it came to handing out credit for a job well done.
"He was kind of always tough on the exterior," he said. "But I know that he would probably let it all hang out on something like this and really be upfront and honest."
"A lot of lifetimes mashed into one": Dale Earnhardt Jr. lived life in the fast lane from his teenage years to retirement. He still can't believe it's real.
Dale Jr. paused for a moment, trying to think of the best way to surmise his career and everything that happened. Finally, he just shook his head, admitting he couldn't do it.
"Words really don't feel like they do it justice," he said. "And I want to keep saying the word blessed, but it doesn't seem like it really captures the emotion that I feel when I think about all the things I got to experience. I was very lucky, you know, I was so fortunate time and time again, and when I was young and coming into racing as a driver, I didn't have any expectations."
Earnhardt Jr. maintains a sense of humility you might not expect from racing royalty. When he started racing, he didn't even have a set goal of winning or reaching the top levels of NASCAR.
"There's only a handful of people that get to do it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Even with the connections and associations that I had, I still felt like it was far out of reach. And so when I finally did get behind the wheel and started racing in the Cup Series, anything that happened was a bonus. As we won and as we succeeded, it was just like icing on the cake. It was crazy."
To this day, Earnhardt Jr. says he can't believe what he got to live. But despite the success and fame, it was the appreciation from others he respected that Dale Jr. craved.
"I've always really liked affirmation and confirmation," he said. "That's what fuels me and this is like the biggest box you can check. You've got your whole industry sort of agreeing that you were an asset, you were valuable, you were important. That's such a great feeling. That's all I ever wanted from this whole thing, was for people to be glad I was here."
As NASCAR grew in popularity in the early 2000s, so did Earnhardt's profile. He was featured in Rolling Stone, on MTV and was in a Jay-Z music video. Through it all, he was still Dale Earnhardt Jr., the young kid who wanted his father's approval.
"Lucky for me, I was always surrounded with not only good people that were setting great examples for me as far as making decisions but also people that had my best interest in mind," Earnhardt said.
"I never thought I would make it": Growing up the son of a legend, it seems racing would come naturally to Dale Earnhardt Jr. But it wasn't as easy as you'd expect.
When asked if there was a moment that still seems surreal, Earnhardt was quick to respond.
"Yeah, all of it!" Earnhardt smiled. "I never thought I would make it. I know that sounds so cliché but I literally didn't think it was gonna happen. And I was OK with that."
In fact, Earnhardt had already made up his mind that once racing bombed, he'd be back in the service department of a car dealership turning wrenches and changing oil for a living.
"In literally just a few months, my life took a hard left turn," he said. "For a while, it didn't look like it was happening. And nobody around me, dad included, were giving me any indication that it was gonna happen, right? Dad was busy with his career, he wasn't hands-on with me, sitting down going, 'Man, what are we going to do?' So when I say everything that happened to me in the racing world was just a bonus, it really was because I didn't think it was gonna happen."
Earnhardt said he's read some articles this week and picked up on some quotes from colleagues and friends who said they appreciated him. That affirmation is worth more than gold, literally, to him.
"For them to say that they really appreciated me just as a person ... that's the most important thing," he said. "That's better than any trophy or any win that I ever had on the race track."
Family matters: Earnhardt Jr. credits his wife, Amy, with changing his life in countless ways, which helped shape him into the man he is today.
Earnhardt Jr. announced in 2015 that he and longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann were engaged. They were married on New Year's Eve in 2016 and are now the proud parents of two little girls, Isla and Nicole. Dale Jr. credits Amy with helping him break out of his shell and realize his true potential.
"She changed my life in so many ways. It's ridiculous," Earnhardt said. "I was a completely different person when we first met than I am today. And everything about my life got better. Even before I became her husband, even before I became a father, she just continued to improve my life and helped me see the world in a different way."
Believe it or not, Dale Jr. was a self-proclaimed introvert who locked himself in his motorhome to play video games on race weekends. When he was home, Earnhardt kept to himself, too.
"I wouldn't want to leave and she's like, 'I'm not living that way. We're getting out,'" Earnhardt said. "Then she's like, "we've got to go do and see, I need to be around people.'"
Looking ahead to the ceremony, Earnhardt was thrilled his daughters, who didn't get to experience his racing career, will be part of it.
"My little girls are so young that it's hard to know exactly what they're picking up on and whether they truly understand what's happening," Earnhardt said. "And so I think that it's going to be an ongoing project to educate my daughters on my life and my racing career and everything else we did.
"They're gonna be like, 'yeah, whatever,' and some of it might be cool. It'll be fun to find out what gets them excited and what they're interested in and what they could care less about. I love sharing those moments with them. Everything about an experience gets better when they're a part of it."
The next chapter: If you thought Earnhardt Jr. would be ready to wind down, think again.
Now that he's finally enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it would be easy to think Dale Jr.'s ready to call it a career and disappear.
You'd be wrong. He's excited to be part of NBC's NASCAR broadcast team, alongside Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte. He's also enjoying his life as a team owner, with JR Motorsports competing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
"I would love to continue broadcasting. I love being in the booth with the guys," he said. "We have a lot of fun."
Dale Jr. also has many ventures outside of racing, including a new vodka brand and an air filter delivery service with former NASCAR driver Blake Koch. It's all about the future for Earnhardt, as he wants a better life for his kids when they're older.
"I'm trying to create things I can pass down to my girls," Earnhardt said. "And that will go beyond, you know, just my generation or even their generation."
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