When Dale Earnhardt Jr. straps into his No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet for the 627th time of his career on Sunday, it will be his last start at Kansas Speedway.
Before the season Earnhardt announced his plans to retire from Cup racing at the conclusion of the 2017 season ending his 19-year career in NASCAR’s top series.
While he has never won a Monster Energy Series Cup championship over his career, you would be mistaken to overlook the overall impact he has made on NASCAR and auto racing in general.
He has carried on the Earnhardt name that is rooted deep with tradition and was made most famous by his father, a seven-time champion, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
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“He’s carrying the family flag right now,” Ryan Newman said of his long-time competitor. “Look at Ralph, Dale Sr. and now Dale Jr., and they’ve been around NASCAR for a long time and experienced a lot of growth.”
Indeed the Earnhardt family has been involved in the sport since its early days.
Ralph Earnhardt competed in 51 races from 1956-66 and won the NASCAR Sportsman Championship in 1956.
His son, Dale Sr., began racing in 1975 and collected 76 wins over his 27-year career and is still considered the face of the sport by many.
“He was everybody’s hero,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in an interview that will air on NBC’s “Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist.”
“My wife wants to know him so badly, and what kids we hope to have will never get to meet him … he was this really special, special person,” Earnhardt Jr. added of his father.
Since that interview took place, Dale Jr. and his wife Amy announced on Thursday that they will be having a daughter.
“I’m thrilled to be in this position in my life,” he said. “I know that Amy has changed my life a lot, and I imagine this baby is going to have the same impact and just can’t wait to meet her.”
The Earnhardt name is monumental in the NASCAR world and will now continue onto another generation.
“He’s no different than a Petty, they’ve experienced a lot of all of it,” Newman said of the family’s footprint on the sport.
While Jr.’s career took place in the shadow of his father’s success, he’s still left his own unique style on the track.
“He had that old school vibe to him and at the same time he always had something up his sleeve that seemed similar to his father,” said Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy Ford.
Earnhardt Jr. has won 26 races with that old-school vibe, tying him for 29th on NASCAR’s all-time win list, and is known as one of the greatest restrictor-plate drivers in the history of the sport with 10 points-paying wins on those tracks.
“On those restrictor-plate tracks he was incredible,” said Busch. “You were just in awe about how he would run those races and control us. He would run the high groove and everybody would follow him. He was like the Pied Piper.”
The “Pied Piper” was one of a few nicknames attached to Earnhardt Jr. over his career. You may also have heard him referred to as “Little E,” “Junebug,” or simply “Junior” over the years.
Other drivers were used to following the “Pied Piper” around on NASCAR’s biggest tracks at Daytona and Talladega, so much so that Busch even developed a new comparison for Junior’s dominance on the tracks.
“I would always joke around with him after, I’m like dude, you’re kind of just running us around like you’re the shepherd and we’re your sheep,” Busch said on Earnhardt’s plate-track success.
While most of his success came at restrictor-plate tracks, his talent showed at all 23 tracks on the NASCAR circuit.
“He was good at plate tracks, but he was also the guy where if you have to run 3 inches off the wall, he was fast those weekends,” said Jamie McMurray, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet. “I don’t know that he got credit for how good he was.”
Some of Earnhardt’s best tracks outside of the superspeedways include the short tracks of Phoenix and Richmond where he has three wins each, and the larger tracks of Pocono and Michigan where he has two wins apiece.
Earnhardt is still looking for his first victory at Kansas Speedway, as his career-best finish at Kansas Speedway came back in June of 2011 when he crossed the line second to Brad Keselowski.
If he is able to reach victory lane at Kansas, expect a spectacle from those in attendance.
Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award for 14 consecutive seasons thanks to his large, loyal fan-base.
“I remember the Bristol night race when he was in the Budweiser car and he won, and it was like the whole place just wanted to come in the infield and victory lane and party with him,” Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said.
His presence has been essential for the image of NASCAR and has kept a large number of people buying merchandise, attending races, and watching on TV.
“The way he changed the marketing appeal for our sport, that’s something that will be greatly missed and will be hard to replace,” said Busch.
Junior attributes some of that marketing success to his father.
“A lot of the association with my Dad was a big part of it,” he said. “We got lined up with Budweiser right out of the gate in the Cup Series, shot us into the stratosphere as far as our name recognition and building our brand. I have no idea what all that was then, but it certainly is still paying off today.”
While nobody can be certain what NASCAR’s condition will be in the future, there will be big shoes to fill after Earnhardt steps away.
The 2017 season hasn’t been exactly what Earnhardt may have envisioned when deciding to retire.
He fell short of making the NASCAR playoffs and has yet to capture a win. And while it may have been easy to let his struggles get the best of him, his attitude has remained positive.
“I remember after Michigan, walking away from the car back to the motor-home lot there was a long line of fans and he went over and was signing autographs and taking pictures,” said McMurray. “That’s easy to do on the days that you are successful, it’s really hard when you just get out of the car and want to be by yourself when you’ve had such a bad day.”
And despite all of his struggles this season, he continues to remain interactive with his fans, continuing his live broadcasts on Periscope every week.
“That’s all that matters, I guess, is that people think you’re a good person and fun to be around. The wins and all the successes are great, but at the end of the day it’s kind of about who you are and whether you’re a good dude.”
This is why Earnhardt’s retirement is NASCAR’s top story of 2017. While he was a fierce competitor on the track, he was just as much of an ambassador for the sport off it.
“There will be nobody that could ever fill the shoes of Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” said Busch.