It seems like a lifetime ago, and in a way, it was.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a decade since Dale Earnhardt Jr. came onto the scene as a then Winston Cup rookie with a heck of a name to live up to. He was a likable young kid who liked to party and have a good time and race on Sunday. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry to grow up, and that was OK. He was determined to be his own person, free of the shadow of his father, a seven-time Cup champion and a racing legend.
But Dale Earnhardt cast a long shadow, and his death in February 2001 forced Junior to grow up overnight. Driving for the organization his father built for him, Earnhardt Jr. proved his prowess on the racetrack with 17 wins to date. After his father’s death, Junior wanted to uphold the reputation of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated on the track and was successful, as were teammates Steve Park and Michael Waltrip. Everything was turning up roses, and there was no reason to believe that the Earnhardt name on the sign outside wouldn’t be carried on inside the shop as well for years to come, with Junior racing the red No. 8 for as long as he wanted to race at NASCAR’s top level.
But that wasn’t to be. Without the direction of the man who started it all, DEI began a slow slide that was probably not visible at first. Park was gravely injured in a Busch Series crash in the fall of 2001 and would never be the same fiercely talented young competitor he once was. Waltrip won the Daytona 500 again, but never found much success off the restrictor-plate tracks. Junior was winning, but his team lacked the consistency to ever really be the major title contender that had previously been a foregone conclusion. Junior had his own ideas about how to take DEI to the level his father had envisioned, but his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, had a different direction in mind. The No. 1 car sat driverless for a time after Park’s failed comeback, until Martin Truex Jr., a driver that Richie Gilmore handpicked and Junior nurtured in his Busch Series career, came on board. Truex is making a name for himself and his team, but DEI is no longer the on-track powerhouse it once was and was meant to be – and Junior grew frustrated.
When Teresa questioned his commitment to racing in the last offseason, it must have stung. Junior never wanted to be anything less than a champion, but that was becoming more and more of a pipe dream as DEI slipped further behind its competitors each year. And it’s likely what got the wheels in motion, too. At some point, it must have become clear to Junior that the grass really was greener in other pastures, and he did what once was unthinkable: he announced in May, just before Mother’s Day, that he would leave the company that bears his name at the end of 2007.
It was time, it really was. At 32, Junior was no longer the young gun in town. It was apparent to even the most casual observer that things were not clicking anymore at DEI. So Junior, who has always been driven by his desire to carry on his family’s championship legacy, went to Hendrick Motorsports, a powerhouse team that captured half of the available wins in the Nextel Cup Series this year – certain to win their second Cup in as many years, and seventh since 1995. His teammates will be Jeff Gordon, a one-time rival and always a friend of his father’s; Jimmie Johnson, a young man not really much unlike Junior in many respects; and Casey Mears, the product of a racing bloodline every bit as rich as Junior’s. While many fans see rival Gordon’s organization as an evil empire, Junior saw it – correctly – as the best place for him to find the title he yearns for.
Meanwhile, Junior gave 2007 everything he had, wanting to win one more for old time’s sake, one more for the man who gave him his name and his legacy. Every week, he came up short, and by fall, it was easy to see the strain on Earnhardt. His (usually during-race) post-race comments were quietly emotional, his voice thick with disappointment. In one way, it’s time to move on. In another, he’ll never really be ready at all.
And so it comes to this: the white-flag lap for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Dale Earnhardt Inc. It will be very different next year not seeing that red No. 8 on track, the number itself looking awfully like a three that had simply come full circle. But that eight was upright, not the imagined infinity symbol at all, and the magic had grown tired. While DEI will always be the place where Junior grew up, it was apparent that it was no longer the place for him that it had once been. So Junior will turn that last lap and then walk away.
But he walks away as the person he always wanted to be: his own man, but a man who wears the family legacy well. His father gave him roots at DEI. It turns out he also gave him wings.