To gauge Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s impact on NASCAR, one need look no further than the video that surfaced last week showing the racing legend comforting a crying boy in the garage area at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
The youngster, who had recently lost his mother, was invited to take part in pre-race activities with Junior’s team.
Earnhardt Jr. put his arm around the boy and stood with him for a moment.
“I tried to tell him that the race track is a happy place, to have fun,” Earnhardt Jr. said this week at Texas Motor Speedway, host to Junior’s last Cup race in Texas today, the AAA Texas 500. “That he should enjoy it, and make sure he has some fun.
“He had lost his mom recently, and had a hard time with that. He seemed like a great kid. And he did have a lot of fun.”
Earnhardt Jr. had a head start on NASCAR celebrity with a famous name and genes. His arrival included every element of fanfare, except a wicker basket and angels blaring trumpets.
Earnhardt Jr.’s legend and popularity rival any other iconic figure in the history of sport. In Texas, he’d give just about anybody not named Houston or Crockett a run in a popularity contest.
That’s not because he was one of its most successful drivers, though he has been a very good one, twice winning the Daytona 500. Yet, he will leave with plenty of race victories, but never a season championship.
Rather, Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring because of concussions, maintained and increased his throngs of fandom because his humanity was seemingly always on display. He was always relatable, and he was genuine and sincere over an almost 20-year Cup career.
What you saw, they said, was who he was.
Though his net worth is unimaginable, there was no socioeconomic or class divide. You get the feeling Junior would cringe as you would at a $12 bottle of beer.
He is, as NASCAR executive Mike Helton said, “what NASCAR is all about.”
That’s why there has been a season-long “Apprec88tion Tour.”
“He’s a very humble guy, and he does a lot of things that you don’t hear about,” said Coleman Nunn, a race fan spending this week on the TMS infield with buddies. All are from Corsicana. “He’s a big-hearted guy. I tell people all the time, if you don’t like Dale Jr., then it’s because you never gave him a chance. There’s nothing not to like.
Earnhardt Jr. isn’t going away completely. He’ll do broadcast work for NBC, and he still owns JR Motorsports, which fields Xfinity cars. Earnhardt Jr. will drive those a few times next year. He hinted Saturday that Texas might be one of those places.
Earnhardt Jr. was honored on Saturday with induction into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at TMS during a mid-afternoon luncheon. Fort Worth racing legend Johnny Rutherford, who shared a private word with Junior, and Bobby Allison were in attendance.
Junior’s selection to the hall wasn’t exactly a controversial pick, particularly considering that his first wins in the Xfinity and Cup series occurred here in 1998 and 2000.
With three races remaining, Junior has 26 career Cup victories and 259 top-10 finishes.
If you ask him, his best victory in Texas, however, is his wife, Amy, a Victoria native.
“Texas has been so awesome to me,” said Earnhardt Jr., who will start 17th today. “I’ve got a whole ’nother family down here. We spent all week with them, with her sister and her husband.
“Texas is a place that is almost a second home.”
Like the fans, NASCAR headquarters will miss Junior, who was credited with almost saving the sport in the aftermath of his father’s death at Daytona in February of 2001.
“Watching Dale Jr. grow up, in general and in our sport, has been a blessing and very important,” said Helton. “I get into a lot of conversations about my favorite Dale Jr. moment. There are actually two of them. One was in July, his win at the Pepsi 400 in 2001. The whole industry needed a moment [after Dale Sr.’s death] and that was it.
“The other was a couple of months later. We skipped New Hampshire and went to Dover for the first race after 9/11. Dale Jr. won there.”
NASCAR’s favorite son gave a wounded nation another healing moment.
“I thank him,” said Nunn, the fan from Corsicana. “What he’s added to the sport has provided a decade of enjoyment for me. I’m grateful he did what he did. He’s finishing out this year for us … he’s doing it for his fans. He could have done like Carl Edwards and just left. But he’s out there because he feels like he owes it to his fans.”
AAA Texas 500
1 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN