I can’t recall my exact reaction when first hearing that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was planning to retire, but I’m pretty sure it involved a great big yawn.
In fact, Dale Jr.’s entire career has been one long yawn if you ask me, considering his heritage as the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the expectations that he would follow in Dad’s footsteps to at least some degree.
Earnhardt Sr. was the epitome of a competitor, from the time he was first strapped in to a Cup series car in 1975 up to his death in a crash at Daytona in February 2001.
To say he had a desire to win is a gross understatement — when seeing him in action on the track, you got the impression Dale Earnhardt Sr. would gladly have run over his mother to capture each and every race.
No matter where he found himself in the field, Earnhardt Sr. seemed to do everything in his power to take the next spot. In fact, one of the thrills of watching him race was when he had poor qualifying efforts and started way back, but would methodically fight his way to the front — always entertaining.
During his career, Dale Sr. captured seven NASCAR points championships, tied for most of all time with Richard Petty, and won 76 Cup series races.
So when Dale Jr. came along, fans had every right to think he at least would be a fiery competitor — while likely not matching his father’s greatness (after all, one thing that defines legends is their rarity).
Yet the lack of such qualities was evident right out of the gate for Earnhardt Jr., when after his first full season in 2000 he failed to win Rookie of the Year honors. Based on his lineage and other factors, one would’ve thought he was a shoo-in for that award, which instead went to Matt Kenseth.
It quickly became apparent that Earnhardt Jr. was just another case of a son failing to live up to the exploits of his father, instead basically living off the elder’s reputation. And maybe taking a ride away from a more deserving competitor denied a spot in a sport all too often guided by one’s family connections rather than skills.
To be honest in assessing Dale Jr.’s career, he did have a pretty good streak going in the early 2000s when both he and Michael Waltrip were driving for DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.). That organization had a way of dominating restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega), which translated into six victories for Dale Jr. in 2004, the peak season of his career.
Since then, however, Son of Dale has logged a meager 11 victories — the last coming in 2015 — and six winless seasons.
Contrast that to Kyle Busch, who in recent years in my estimation has been the closest thing to Dale Earnhardt Sr. in terms of both talent and fiery competitiveness. During the past 10 years, since 2008, Busch has picked up 34 victories in the Cup series alone, despite being winless this season, plus many more in the sport’s other two major series.
Certainly a lot of factors are required for winning a race: a driver must be part of a competitive organization with good engines, equipment and a pit crew, and also must be willing to give his all to bring that together for a successful outcome.
It’s not Dale Jr.’s lack of winning that bothers me, but the fact he doesn’t really seem to care if he wins or not. At least punch somebody every now and then for running you into the wall or cuss them out a little.
During the TV broadcast of last Sunday’s race at Loudon, New Hampshire, color commentator Kyle Petty must have been trying to be nice when he made a remark about Dale Jr., who had stayed out on old tires during a caution while others pitted.
Dale Jr. found himself at the front of the pack, which Petty predicted would not last long, commenting that Earnhardt not only had worn tires but “is not the most aggressive restarter in the world.”
I’d like to know what Dale Jr. IS aggressive about, other than doing Nationwide Insurance, Bojangles’ and other commercials. He can be described as a male version of Danica Patrick, someone else who undeservedly is where she is because of qualities unrelated to ability.
The only other bit of enthusiasm I’ve seen Dale Jr. espouse was when he condemned the Confederate flag a couple of years ago. He should’ve been more concerned then with his place in racing history.
Now during his final season before retirement, much fanfare surrounds Dale Jr. and his farewell tour, which shows how desperate NASCAR is for story lines these days. But I just feel another big yawn coming.
I also hear a distinct sound: that of Dale Earnhardt Sr. spinning in his grave, which is much faster than his son goes on the track.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.