Dale Jr. on Hall of Fame: ‘No greater pat on the back or tip of the cap than this’

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Many people would likely rather run as far away from the dentist as they can.

But on the day he could be named one of three inductees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the dentist for a root canal.

“I’ve been more nervous about that and the anxiety about the root canal was all counter to this whole Hall of Fame induction,” Earnhardt said after his selection to the Class of 2021 with Mike Stefanik and Red Farmer. “At 5 o’clock, when the (announcement) show started, that’s when it all started. I didn’t think I was going to be this emotional. But it’s a great feeling and it was very emotional to be chosen.”

It wasn’t just the dentist visit that has kept his mind off Tuesday’s announcement.

“I’m sorry but I hadn’t put any thought into (Tuesday’s announcement),” he said. “My mind’s been dominated by what’s going on in our world and what’s happening around us and how to keep the movement and the conversation going and what can I do, things like that. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into that.

“Since we’re coming out of the pandemic and everything going on with that, there’s a lot of news that’s fluid every single day and trying to understand where we are with that and what I need to be understanding about that … there’s so much happening and I haven’t been able to put a lot of thought into this Hall of Fame induction.

“… I didn’t have any time whatsoever to be nervous or worried about being picked or any of that until 5 o’clock when the show started. It really started to hit me then, that this is such a weird, important moment in my life. I didn’t know it was going to be this emotional.”

Earnhardt choked up several times, both on NASCAR America’s telecast of the Hall announcement on NBCSN, as well as on the media teleconference afterward. For a man who has spent much of his career comfortably displaying a wide range of emotions, Earnhardt admitted this was a whole different feeling.

“I was really surprised and taken aback by the feeling that came over me,” he said.

While many fans and even voters felt Earnhardt’s selection for the Hall would be a slam dunk – after all, he did earn 76 percent of the vote – the son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt felt otherwise.

“I was good with just being on the sheet (of 10 nominees), I was going to be happy with that,” Earnhardt said. “I’m 45 and relatively young in the grand scheme of Hall of Fame things and I was going to be patient waiting.”

But it was difficult for voters, be they members of the media or those in the NASCAR industry, to overlook Earnhardt.

He was NASCAR’s most popular driver unabated for a decade and a half. He was a two-time Xfinity Series champion. He was a two-time Daytona 500 champion.

And perhaps more than all the wins or what he achieved during nearly a quarter-century in the sport, starting on its lowest rungs and working his way to superstardom, was the fact Junior also was picked for the Hall because of who he became, whether he wanted to or not, after his father died in a crash at Daytona in 2001: The sport’s biggest ambassador.

“There’s no greater pat on the back or tip of the cap than this, from the industry, from the people who vote … whether they’re drivers, journalists, industry execs or what,” Earnhardt said. “It’s such a great feeling that somebody felt I made an impact on the sport.”

Now that he’s a father himself (with a second child now on the way), and has become a popular broadcaster, Tuesday’s announcement was somewhat cathartic for the former driver of the No. 8 and 88.

“There was a point in my career I started to think, ‘Ok, I’m not going to win seven championships, maybe not even one championship, or not win 100 races, maybe not even 40 races,’ ” he said.

“ … People wanted me to be like (my father). When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to win those races and championships, I started to think what I could do outside of that, what else I could control to help the sport and be a good ambassador for the sport.

“I wasn’t always perfect but started focusing in those areas, being accessible and being accountable. I feel I did a decent job at that. I don’t want to sit here and measure that, but I’m pretty happy about that part of my career and the impact I had on the sport.”

Earnhardt admitted early in his career, he did some things that potentially ruffled some feathers of the sport’s hierarchy, like his celebrated interview with Rolling Stone or being on TV shows like “Cribs” on MTV.

“I always thought it was important I gained a ton of fans because of who I was, right out of the gate,” he said. “But I knew when dad died, I was going to assume all or most of his fan base, and I feel like I took care of that. I didn’t squander it, and I grew that base and introduced people who hadn’t heard of Dale Earnhardt.

“I always felt like the sport needed to be healthy long after my driving career was over. It’s important for me that our sport survives and stays strong long after my life is over.”

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