Those Texans – as Texans are wont to do – among the rock’n roll-like throngs who identify as Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, are more than loud and proud to boast that then “Little E’s” first NASCAR Monster Cup victory was a triumphant spin around the 1 1/2-mile oval at Fort Worth’s Texas Motor Speedway on a brisk April afternoon in 2000.
Few in attendance knew how significant that victory was. Fewer realized just how significant that breakthrough triumph would turn out to be.
Looking back, however, as the full story evolved over what became a historic career, the post-race celebration didn’t seem fitting for a guy who, only 10 months later, would put on the cape as Superman’s heir.
“After the Victory Lane celebration and meeting with media, then we all go to the Speedway Club for a champagne toast with about 1,000 members,” recalled TMS president Eddie Gossage. “We all piled in to a vehicle. Budweiser had this advertising campaign and all I remember about that afternoon is Dale Jr. in the back of this Suburban calling his friends on the cell phone, and they would answer, and he’d go ‘wasssssuuuupppp.’
“He hung up and called another friend, and did that over and over until we got to the Speedway Club. I don’t know how many people he called, and who they were. Every time after that I’d see that commercial on TV, I heard it in Junior’s voice, not the TV voices.”
Earnhardt Jr., then driving the No. 8 Budweiser car for Dale Earnhardt Inc., had been around long enough to know that in NASCAR, the sponsor and the fan are Priorities 1 and 1A.
The 25-year-old, though, would stand before NASCAR’s executive council a year later for coronation as the personality – and name – who would be the bridge connecting the sport’s old-school, cigarettes-and-moonshine era, to the blossoming 21st Century future.
That triumph in 2000, and all that has happened in between, will have a bookend as the retiring Earnhardt Jr., now at 43, makes his last appearance at Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday in the AAA Texas 500.
The sendoff is sure to be a hoot. That’s a TMS hallmark for retiring high-profile stars.
Though out of the running for the season’s Chase for the Championship, TMS likely represents Earnhardt’s last best chance for victory.
In his last five starts at TMS, Earnhardt Jr. has finished no worse than sixth, including a runner-up performance in April of 2016, and a fifth this past April.
Earnhardt didn’t race in last year’s AAA Texas 500 because of the concussion issues that are chasing him from the sport.
In 29 career starts at TMS, Earnhardt Jr. has 18 top-10 finishes. His average finish of 13.1 at Texas is the best among the remaining five.
His Hall-of-Fame credentials are seemingly secure, even without a Monster Cup season series victory.
The No. 88 enters this week with 50 NASCAR national series victories, including 26 at NASCAR’s top level. He also has 149 top-five Monster Energy Cup finishes.
Earnhardt Jr. is also a 14-time winner of the most popular driver award.
Victory would certainly be fitting, considering this is where it all started. But race week will be triumphant for Earnhardt, no matter what happens, with a celebration fit for a man who leaves with the legacy as the one most often credited with saving the sport in the wake of its darkest day – the death of his legendary father and namesake.
The Intimidator was one of pro sports’ toughest competitors ever, a Michael Jordan or Pete Rose sort who would compete just as hard whether he were vying for “a million-dollar check or a candy bar.”
It was at NASCAR’s premier event, the Daytona 500 in 2001, that Earnhardt Sr. and Earnhardt Jr. were running interference for Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate and eventual winner Michael Waltrip.
The father, a few hundred yards behind his son, was racing in the track’s bottom groove when the left front tire broke loose as it neared the checkered flag. The car was tapped slightly in the left rear by the car driven by Sterling Marlin.
The nudge sent Earnhardt Sr.’s car shooting up the banking head-on into the concrete retaining wall. Earnhardt’s car slid along the wall and was hit in the right side by the car driven by Ken Schraeder before spinning down into the infield at Turn 4.
As Earnhardt Jr. sped to the checkered flag as the runner-up, dirt and dust from the accident was flying.
NASCAR’s suddenly broken brand was handed to the son.
“He stepped up at time when the sport didn’t know what to do next,” said Steve Letarte, a race analyst for NBC and one-time crew chief for Earnhardt Jr. “He went through that in a certain way that allowed the sport to go on with confidence.”
It was an incredibly difficult time for Earnhardt Jr., whose relationship with his father as a child was a limited and shallow one. More than racing was happening with the two on the track. It was there that the two bonded.
Gossage looked back with admiration at how well Earnhardt Jr. carried on under such public scrutiny while dealing with such private pain and grief. In the years that followed came a very public and messy split with his step-mother and his exit from DEI which, without his star power, ultimately folded.
“At a crucial point in our sports history, we were able to watch their relationship grow,” said Jimmie Johnson, a friend and longtime teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. “I know as a fan watching [then], and already then friends with Dale Jr., there were levels of their relationship we saw play out right in front of their eyes. Really special to see.”
While Earnhardt Jr. will be leaving as competitor, he isn’t going away.
He’ll join NBC as an analyst next year, a job Gossage thinks Junior is perfect for, despite actually being a “very, very shy person. Junior has a great way about communicating.”
His career as a driver almost complete, writing his legacy simply can’t be done yet.
“There are so many ways he has touched NASCAR,” Letarte said. “He will find ways to impact the sport. I don’t think it’s anywhere near over.”
Gossage believes Junior’s ultimate legacy might be in concussion issues. Earnhardt Jr. has missed 20 races over two seasons, 2012 and 2016, dealing with concussion problems.
The sport has become safer, particularly after Earnhardt Sr.’s death. Junior could indeed play a role in concussion research and prevention in the sport.
Whatever it is he will be doing, people, like they have for more than 15 years, will be paying attention to his every move.
“Dale has had to carry a lot of the weight of the sport on his shoulders,” Tony Stewart said. “I don’t know how he’s done it. Not only as a driver, but as an ambassador for NASCAR. To go through the ups and downs that he’s had to go through, I don’t know there are many people who could have handled it the way he has.
“He’s somebody everybody looks up to, from the business side, to the driving side, to dealing with fans and the media … I don’t think there’s anyone who does it better than him.”
And so, 17 years after victory No. 1, that’s what is up.
AAA Texas 500
1 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN