Generally speaking, comparing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his father- a seven-time NASCAR champion- is racing sacrilege. To say Dale Sr. was a NASCAR giant is like saying Lennon and McCartney were a good songwriting team. With few exceptions, the resume of The Intimidator dwarfs all comers.
There is one area where Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed well in his father’s footsteps. With 10 wins on restrictor plate tracks, “Lil E” far outpaces the field of active drivers. With five wins at plate tracks, only Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart come close. Heck, Earnhardt won five races at Talladega in a seven-race stretch between 2001 and 2004. If restrictor plate racing is all luck, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets lucky a lot.
The tragic death of Earnhardt the Elder at Daytona International Speedway often overshadows what he accomplished there. While he may have only won the Daytona 500 once, “Ironhead” won a prodigious 34 events. He was a beast in the twin qualifiers. At Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won a record 10 Cup races. He was the legendary “man who could see air.” Put another way, Earnhardt knew how to make air coming off of the car work to his advantage.
If you were to ask either Earnhardt, they would tell you they didn’t do it alone. Dale Sr. accomplished most of his greatest feats while driving for Richard Childress Racing in their heyday. Dale Earnhardt Inc. is where Dale Jr. got his Cup career started. In the early 2000s, not only was Junior a frequent visitor to victory lane, all four of Michael Waltrip’s career Cup wins came at plate tracks in the employ of DEI. After years of struggling, Earnhardt the Younger has recaptured his racing mojo while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, the gold standard of NASCAR teams.
Some may stereotype Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a bumpkin because of his good ol’ boy image. He’d be the first to admit he wasn’t much for academics. It belies the fact he is passionate about racing history, and a virtual doctor of the draft. When drivers need drafting partners in a restrictor plate race, who is the go-to guy? All those critics who carp of Earnhardt being overrated can’t deny Junebug’s success.
This Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 is sure to be one crazy affair, with any number of contenders. There are a few for whom success isn’t luck at the superspeedways. Johnson, Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick all must be accounted for. But chief among them is Dale Earnhardt’s prize plate racing pupil, none other than Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr.