Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr is a NASCAR driver and a son of one of the best drivers in the history of NASCAR, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. Junior isn't among the most successful drivers, not winning either one Cup Series title, but he's definitely the most popular of all, receiving the Most Popular Driver Award fourteen times in a row from 2003 to 2016.
Dale Earnhardt Jr retired from NASCAR at the end of 2017 season, with an impressive record of 632 Cup Series starts between 1999 and 2017. He won 26 times, including two wins at Daytona 500 (2004 and 2014). In the NASCAR Busch Series, he scored 24 wins in 139 starts, taking two championship titles in 1998 and 1999.
Ralph Dale Earnhardt Junior, was born on October 10, 1974 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. He is the third generation of Earnhardt’s in NASCAR but despite many good results, he was never close to repeating the success of his father. However, he was voted the Most Popular Driver in the series 13 times in a row, from 2003 to 2015.
The decision to continue the family tradition of racing was logical. His first experience in racing was in Street Stock division and Late Model Stock cars. He was driving mainly at the tracks in North Carolina alongside his half-brother Kerry Earnhardt and sister Kelley. At the same time, Dale Jr worked as a mechanic at his father’s dealership so he learned a lot about a car setup and the preparation for the races.
In 1996, another Earnhardt appeared in NASCAR. Dale Jr debuted in Busch Series, finishing 14th at Myrtle Beach. The following year, he appeared in eight races with the 7th place at Michigan as his best result.
Earnhardt - The two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion
In 1998, Dale Jr became a full-time driver in Busch Series and won the title in his first attempt. Driving a Dale Earnhardt Inc’s Chevrolet #3, he scored a maiden win in Coca Cola 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, later he won another six races and clinched the title ahead of Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt defended the title in 1999 thanks to an excellent form in the second half of the year when he won six times, finishing the season well ahead of Jeff Green.
That was his last full-time season in the Busch Series during which he also debuted in the Cup, driving in five races. Dale Jr’s best result was a 10th place in Richmond and those races were a good preparation for the following year in which he became a full-time Cup driver of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Move to Cup Series in 2000
The season of 2000 was Dale Jr’s first full-time year in the Cup. Driving a Ford #8, Earnhardt had a pretty good campaign in which he finished 16th, after scoring two wins at Texas and Richmond. He also became the first rookie who won NASCAR’s All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The following year was better in the terms of results as Earnhardt moved up to the 8th position in the championship, this time with three wins in the books – at Daytona, Dover, and Talladega. He had a total of nine top 5 and 15 top 10 finishes. Sadly, his success was overshadowed by the crash at Daytona 500 in which his father was killed.
Title contender in 2003
In 2002, Earnhardt’s form was variable. Dale had too many ups and downs all over the season. He finished in 11th place, with two wins, both at Talladega. Dale Jr suffered a concussion during the race at Fontana in April which is why he wasn't constantly good during the season.
The following year was much better and Earnhardt for the first time was a title contender. He again won at Talladega, later scored a victory at Phoenix and had numerous top 5 finishes but that wasn’t enough for the trophy. He finished 3rd in the points, being 207 points behind a champion Matt Kenseth and 90 behind a runner-up Jimmie Johnson. As a consolation, he was named Most Popular Driver for the first time. That award was in his hands until 2015.
Maiden win at Daytona 500
The beginning of 2004 was perfect. Dale scored his maiden win at Daytona 500, three years after the death of his father. Later he added wins at Atlanta, Richmond, Bristol, Talladega, and Phoenix, but he was never close to the title despite a record number of victories. At the end of the year, he was 5th overall.
In 2004, during a practice for the ALMS race at Sonoma Raceway, Dale’s Corvette slid off the course, hit the wall and went on fire while he was still inside. Earnhardt suffered serious burns on his head.
The season of 2005 was one of the worst in Dale’s career. He scored only one win, in July at Chicagoland, had too many failures and at the end of the year he was 19th which was a big downfall. However, Earnhardt recovered in 2006. He again had only one win, at Richmond, but he also had 10 top 5 finishes, which was enough to qualify for the Chase. At the end of the year, Dale Jr was 5th, 147 points behind the champion Jimmie Johnson.
Two hard years and departure from Dale Earnhardt Inc.
In 2007, for the first time, Earnhardt failed to win a single race. His performances were at a high level only in the middle of the year so it wasn’t a surprise when he was 16th in the points, which was far below his ambitions. A small light in the dark was a pole position at Pocono, his first pole after five years.
In May, Dale announced that by the end of the season he will leave a company founded by his father. He felt like he will never win the Sprint Cup with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Soon after, in 2008, he signed a contract with Hendrick Motorsports. That was a beginning of a new but not so successful partnership.
Beginning with Hendrick Motorsports
Dale Jr changed the team colors because he wanted to become the NASCAR Cup champion but unfortunately that didn't happen. Driving a Chevrolet #88, Earnhardt won the race at Michigan which was his only victory in 2008 and, interestingly, after that triumph, his form dropped a lot and he had only four top 10 finishes but managed to qualify for Chase for the Cup. However, finishing 12th overall definitely wasn’t something Dale expected from the new team.
The following year was much worse. Earnhardt was directly involved in a huge crash in the season-opener at Daytona and that probably designated the whole season which was almost disastrous. Dale Jr had only two top 5 finishes and even the change of a crew chief did not help. At the end, Earnhardt was 25th which is his lowest finish ever.
He finished in 2nd place at 2010 Daytona 500 but it was another season full of pain and disappointment. The winless streak has continued and Dale finished the season in 21st place.
Probably the only memorable moment that year was the victory in NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona when Earnhardt was driving his dad's famous No. 3 (and one of his best paint schemes) blue-yellow Wrangler. When asked if he would ever race the No. 3 again, Dale Jr. said that he wouldn't.
The situation improved in 2011. Despite not winning a race, Dale’s results were much better, especially in the first half of the season. Earnhardt qualified for the Chase after many years and finished 7th in the final classification after signing a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports until 2017.
Breaking the 143-race winless streak and one record
Earnhardt had a strong start in 2012, scoring a Top 10 finish. The fine form was crowned with a victory at Michigan which was hist first win since 2008 at the same track. However, Dale’s results again dropped slightly and later he had to sit out two races due to a concussion from the crash at Talladega in October. Earnhardt was allowed to race in the final four events of the season in which he took the 12th place.
For the third time in four years, Earnhardt finished as a runner-up at Daytona 500 and later he had four top 10 places. Dale was in pretty good shape throughout the season in which he again was without a win but was good enough to finish 5th in standings. He also was voted Most Popular Driver for the 11th consecutive time, breaking Bill Elliott’s record.
Second triumph at Daytona 500
After so many years, the luck was finally on Dale’s side at Daytona when he scored his second career win in one of the most important NASCAR races. Earnhardt was in good shape in the next two races at Phoenix and Las Vegas in which he was 2nd, which is why many were thinking that 2014 could be Dale’s year.
Later in the season, he won twice at Pocono but it was followed by a stream of slightly poorer results. Finally, Dale won at Martinsville in his 30th attempt, before finishing 8th in the final standings. At the end of the year, Earnhardt was awarded prestigious Myers Brothers Award for the outstanding contributions to the sport of the stock car racing.
New changes in the team
Earnhardt stepped into the season of 2015 with a new crew chief and with a new sponsor. The season was relatively good. Dale scored three wins, at Talladega, Daytona, and Phoenix, but after the second race at Talladega, in which he finished 2nd, Earnhardt didn't have a chance to qualify for the Chase.
Ready for retirement at the end of 2017
In the first half of 2016, Earnhardt scored five top 5 finishes before he was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms. After being replaced with Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon in three races, Dale Jr decided to miss the remainder of the season.
He returned to full-time schedule in 2017, announcing that he will retired from racing at the end of the season. He ended the winless season 21st in the points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr also had a success as a team owner. With his stepmother Teresa, he founded Chance 2 Motorsports that won two Busch Series titles with Martin Truex Jr as a driver in 2004 and 2005. The team was closed in 2006.
He is also one of the owners of JR Motorsports that won NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2014 with Chase Elliott as a driver. The team also competes in the Truck Series. One more title for the team came in 2017, when William Byron became the Xfinity Series champion.