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