Earn­hardt long ago out­grew his fa­ther’s shadow


CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — He was so shy, so skinny, not yet some­body. It was around 1997 and Dale Earn­hardt Jr. was test­ing at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way, wear­ing an all-white fire­suit. Bobby Labonte was the star at the Alabama test that day, and all the me­dia crammed into Tal­ladega’s wood­pan­eled press room to talk to Labonte.

I’m not sure any­one talked to the Earn­hardt kid that day. Why would they? No­body had any idea what he was about to be­come. In that mo­ment at Tal­ladega, he was just the son of NASCAR’s great­est hero, a rich kid get­ting a chance to shake down a car be­cause of his last name. Earn­hardt hadn’t ac­com­plished any­thing and NASCAR had no idea it had a fu­ture rock star in its midst.

Earn­hardt, it turned out, was not just a kid get­ting a break be­cause his fa­ther owned Dale Earn­hardt Inc. The Hall of Famer was tough on his kid, made him work hard, kept him hon­est — two traits Ju­nior has car­ried with him all the way un­til now, his fi­nal week as a full-time driver in NASCAR. Re­tire­ment awaits, and so does fa­ther­hood.

Earn­hardt started small, worked his way through the Xfin­ity Se­ries and be­came a two-time cham­pion. Then Earn­hardt grad­u­ated to the Cup level in 2000 in a seat owned by his dad with splashy spon­sor Bud­weiser

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