Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s engagement another milestone his fans have joined him on

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The news struck as many wiped sleep from their eyes, beginning a morning routine.

Shock. Happiness. And about time. Those were among the reactions to the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. proposed to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann during their vacation in Germany.

This resonated with so many because Earnhardt, the 12-time most popular driver, doesn’t feel like a distant star but a friend or a member of the family. Even with all his money – he has career winnings of nearly $125 million – he shares similar qualities to those making minimum wage.

While many don’t have a Western town, wrecked race cars or a large tree house on their property, who wouldn’t want those things if money wasn’t an object? Despite his fame, he still likes to visit his favorite places in his hometown of Mooresville, N.C. He walked around Germany wearing a blue cap for his high school.

Earnhardt understands the roots that bind one to a community, family and friends. The strong bond he shares with fans led to the overflowing of excitement Wednesday morning. No doubt there are some fans who probably feel that they know Earnhardt better than they do some of their friends. Then again, long-time Earnhardt fans have experienced so much.

They saw a youth dressed in a black-and-silver Goodwrench crew uniform like those on his daddy’s team, saying he wanted to drive race cars. They saw a young man, red cap turned backward, after the loss of his father, sorting through the angst only days after the accident. They saw that young man triumph the next time NASCAR returned to Daytona International Speedway after this dad’s death and win, unleashing a cathartic celebration that was not just for him but for a sport.

His fans also saw the Club E days, the early success and the despondence when his car wasn’t fast, his results weren’t good and he walked around in a daze as to how to make it better.

Now they’ve seen the revival, hitting 40 years old last year and a marriage proposal. Will kids be next?

It seems a long way since that youngster said in an interview that racing “was all I’ve ever known,’’ the corners of his lips widening into that Earnhardt smile as he thought about what the future might hold.

No one could have imagined what he would experience. And what he would share with fans.

They watched him climb NASCAR’s ranks, winning titles in what is now the Xfinity Series in 1998 and ’99. They watched as a platinum-blond Earnhardt qualified for his first Cup race, the 1999 Coca-Cola 600.

“I ain’t never drove nothin’ that drove that good,’’ he said that night.

His father simply said: “I’m tickled.’’

Fans watched as Earnhardt grieved his father’s death. Less than a week after that fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was at Rockingham to race – and talk about what he had gone through.

“I miss my father,” Earnhardt said, followed by a heavy sigh. “I’ve cried for him out of my own selfish pity. I just try to maintain a good focus for the future and just remember that he’s in a better place, a place that we want to be.’’

When he finished speaking, Earnhardt bowed his head.

A few months later, he celebrated in Victory Lane in the first Cup race at Daytona since his father’s crash.

“I can’t believe this is happening to me,’’ Earnhardt said that night. “I don’t know why this is happening to me. I’m just going to stay close to my friends and to Tony (Eury Jr.) and to the people that make me feel good and maybe I’ll figure it out.”

Along the way, Earnhardt stayed close with the fans. His openness was reciprocated. So, it was only natural that Earnhardt, cautious to join social media at first, has embraced it more than most other drivers. It only seemed fitting that he shared the news of his proposal on Twitter.

Isn’t that what friends do?