Born: October 10, 1974
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
NASCAR fans are clearly divided when it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr. They either ardently worship him or think he's getting a free ride because of his legendary father. However, it has been said by people far wiser than us that hating anybody is a waste of time and energy. When it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr., we believe it.
Earnhardt's critics are always quick to point out his often-lackluster performance on the track, but since when has lukewarm performance been a reason to ignore a driver's contribution to the sport? Richard Petty was winless for seven seasons and still remained a beloved fixture at the track and an ambassador to the sport. Ricky Rudd never won more than two races in a season, although he did go 15 straight seasons with at least one victory. Yet he was never the object of media and fan scorn. So what's the problem with Earnhardt? It's called sour grapes, folks. Earnhardt doesn't run away with seven to 10 victories a year, yet he retains a strong fan base and that makes some folks (*cough*kylebusch*cough*) angry.
Earnhardt's fans are the most rabidly devoted in all of Sprint Cup. While it is true that he automatically inherited a great many of his father's fans, he has kept them, and gained many more, by his own means. Unlike his father's working-class hero persona, Junior has cultivated an image more like that of a rock star, complete with groupies and an entourage. Heck, a song has been written in his honor. But unlike a real rock star, however, Earnhardt remains approachable. Anyone who meets him can attest that he is always polite, friendly and sober. As a result, he has been voted the Chex Most Popular Driver Award for the last six years in row and it looks like he'll get it for 2009 as well.
According to his critics, he is undeserving of this distinction because of his poor showing at the track. How soon everyone forgets that Bill Elliott won this particular award 16 times, including a nine-year streak from 1991 to 2000 in which he scored only nine wins. Earnhardt has racked up 13 wins during his six-year stretch as Most Popular. So if driving prowess has little to do with being popular, what makes Earnhardt a hit with fans? We think it may have a lot do with something his father taught him. Read the following testimony from a fan who tried to meet Dale Sr. in 2001.
A local home improvement warehouse was holding a grand opening that included a visit from Dale Earnhardt from 5 to 7 PM one night. Although I was not an autograph hound or a particularly big Earnhardt fan, I still decided to go and get Ironhead's signature on my NASCAR media guide. I arrived late due to an unforeseeable accident and rushed up to the service desk and asked where Earnhardt was. I was directed to a bay at the rear of the store, but was encouraged to hurry, as Dale was preparing to leave. As I approached the bay, I saw Earnhardt in the back seat of car that was backing out. I was disappointed and angry with myself for not getting there sooner, and I knew that Earnhardt couldn't possibly delay his departure any further, especially for just one fan.
What happened next would endear him to me thereafter.
Dale Earnhardt looked in my direction, then made an apparent request for his driver to stop, rolled down his window and motioned me over. He happily signed my media guide, then shook my hand as I wished him well in the upcoming Atlanta race. This small, yet unselfish gesture ended my fence straddling days. My initial interest in getting his signature had been a lark, and when I saw his car backing out to leave, I had no expectation that he would delay his schedule for a fan. Dale made a fan out of me that night.
Because the senior Earnhardt was better known for his aggressive and often controversial driving style, his more personable side was often overlooked until after his death when stories such as the one above began to surface. Dale Earnhardt Sr. couldn't have passed his driving abilities on to his son, but he was capable of passing along knowledge and wisdom - which is exactly what fathers are supposed to do. Dale Sr. knew the importance of treating his fans graciously and passed it on to Dale Jr.
It is a fact that Earnhardt Jr. got a few breaks because of who his father was, but so what? NASCAR's popularity explosion in 80s and 90s made it harder and harder to break into the sport - a young driver needs someone already on the inside to get a foothold. We'd be willing to bet that none of the current crop of drivers ever had to drive his race car home from the track, sleep at a rest area, gnaw chicken bones scrounged from a KFC dumpster or wash his underwear in a water fountain. They've all got it easy compared to how the pioneers of the sport did things.
Also, knowing what kind of man Dale Earnhardt Sr. was, can you imagine him taking it easy on anybody? Especially his own son. Earnhardt Jr. didn't start his racing career until he was 17, driving a 1979 Monte Carlo that was co-owned by himself and half-brother Kerry in the Street Stock division in 1991. Two seasons later, he moved up to the Late Model Stock Car division, then ran nine Nationwide races with DEI between 1996 and 1997. He was finally allowed to climb in his father's Nationwide car full-time in 1998. He won the championship in '98 and '99 and scored a total of 13 wins in those two seasons. He also drove in a total of six Cup races between '98 and '99 before joining NASCAR's premier series full time in 2000. Dale Sr. could have just put his son in the Nationwide car right from the start, but instead he let him earn his stripes (and take his lumps) in other series. In other words, Dale Jr. earned the privilege of piloting his father's Nationwide car and earned the privilege of driving the Cup car while he did it.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has posted 18 wins since joining the Cup Series full-time in 2000. That's an average of two wins a year, AND Earnhardt has only had ONE winless season, which was 2007 - the year before he left the team his father founded.
Now that we have convinced you that Dale Jr. is not anywhere near as bad as his critics (*cough*kylebusch*cough*) want you to believe, let's take a look at some of the cool things he has done and the smokin' hot women he's been seen with.
Dale Jr cracks up a multi-million dollar Corvette at Infineon
And now for Dale Junior's own personal Chickipedia:
Women just love Junior!
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