Dale Jr. celebrates joining his father in NASCAR Hall of Fame

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said he once thought he was destined only to be a mechanic at a car dealership, joined his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night.

“Nothing that racing has given me will ever top this night,” Earnhardt said at the end of his speech. “The people enshrined in this building, they’re my role models and my heroes and one of them happens to be my father, so to join dad in the Hall of Fame is probably as good as it’s going to get.”

Joining Earnhardt in the Class of 2021 is 89-year-old Red Farmer, who will  begin his 75th season of racing when he runs March 18 at Talladega (Alabama) Short Track, and the late Mike Stefanik, a seven-time NASCAR Whelen Modified champion and two-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series champion. 

MORE: Ageless Red Farmer still racing and sharing tales 

MORE: Dale Jr.’s dedication to ill children leaves lasting impact

Broadcaster Bob Jenkins, who died last August after a battle with brain cancer, was honored as the recipient of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR media excellence. Ralph Seagraves, who passed away in 1998, will be honored with the Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to the sport, partnering the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company with NASCAR in 1971 to sponsor the Cup Series, renaming it the Winston Cup Series. 

They were celebrated by a crowd at the Charlotte Convention Center that included 14 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The journey from Earnhardt’s home in Kannapolis, North Carolina, to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte is a short trip in terms of miles but long in terms of what it took Earnhardt to complete the journey. Earnhardt shared his journey by highlighting key people along the way that helped shape him.

Those people were Gary Hargett, his first Late Model crew chief, friend and NBC Sports colleague Dale Jarrett, crew chief Tony Eury Sr., sister Kelley, car owner Rick Hendrick, crew chief and NBC Sports colleague Steve Letarte and wife Amy.

Earnhardt then thanked the fans.

“JR Nation has always had my back,” said the 15-time most popular driver in his speech. “When I stumbled, you guys were right there to lift me back up. Man, there were times when I absolutely needed you and you never let me down and were always there. We won together, and we lost together. Because so, you should know that I don’t go into this Hall of Fame alone. I go with you, and I go because of you.”

A fan in the crowd then shouted: “We love you!”

“I love you, too,” he said.

When Earnhardt made his Cup debut in 1999 at the Coca-Cola 600, he was accustomed to the attention. He had won a title in what was then called the Busch Series the previous year and was on his way to a second consecutive crown that season. He also had signed to a six-year sponsorship deal with Budweiser. 

Even so, the night he qualified for that first Cup race — before a crowd of more than 40,000 fans — Earnhardt admitted to jitters.

“I’ll tell you what, I ain’t never been that nervous in my life,” he said after earning the eighth starting spot, seven positions better than his father. “I wasn’t really worried about my ability to run a fast lap, I just knew that there were a lot more people paying attention than normal.”

But the confidence in Earnhardt was immense. The promotional effort Budweiser had in motion for him was second only to its Bud Bowl promotion that centered around the Super Bowl.

“Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become an absolute phenomenon as an athlete, not just a race car driver, and so the interest level for him … is one of the most astounding I’ve ever seen,” Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., said in 1999. “If the industry is telling me the truth, Dale Jr. is one of the most powerful things to come along in motorsports in years.’’

After he qualified for that Coca-Cola 600, Earnhardt was surrounded by about 35 reporters and photographers near his garage. Teammate Steve Park had to climb atop a cooler so he could reach over the crowd to congratulate Earnhardt.

All the attention was second to what Earnhardt wanted most to achieve.

“If there is one person whose respect I want to earn,” Earnhardt said, “it’s his,” referring to his father.

Less than a year later, Earnhardt won his first of 26 Cup races, taking the checkered flag April 2, 2000, at Texas Motor Speedway in front of more than 200,000 fans. A proud Dale Earnhardt Sr. beat his son to victory lane. Father pulled son out of the car and bear hugged him.

“He told me he loved me,” Earnhardt later said of what his father told him in their embrace.

Less than a year later, his father died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. A family mourned. As did a sport.

Earnhardt’s win at the July 2001 Daytona race — the first Cup race at the track since his father’s death — is one of the most memorable moments in the sport, if not most memorable, in the 2000s. The victory was cathartic not only for Earnhardt but for the sport and its fans.

“I was almost blinded by the flashbulbs going off as Dale Earnhardt Jr. went across the finish line,” said Elliott Sadler after finishing third that night.

Said Earnhardt after that race: “I never would have imagined this would happen. I can’t believe this is happening to me. I don’t know why this is happening to me. I’m just going to stay close to my friends … and to the people that make me feel good and maybe I’ll figure it out.’’

Among Earnhardt’s highlights was winning the 2004 Daytona 500. The trophy is a part of his Hall of Fame display case. While that victory was special because he didn’t have to wait as long as his father to win the 500, it also had special meaning for a future Cup driver who was with Earnhardt that weekend.

Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, got his first experience with what it was like to win that race as a guest of Earnhardt’s that weekend.

“We had just met online racing,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “Not really sure why, but he invited me to come down and stay with him and his friends that weekend. … I’ll never forget going to victory lane and celebrating and then taking the trophy from there to the golf cart, rode with him and the bus driver back. Carried it in from the golf cart  to the bus, wondering if I would have my own.”

While Earnhardt’s career had its share of victories, including another Daytona 500 win in 2014, it was the way he treated people with compassion and kindness — whether competitors, officials, media or fans — that made him stand out.

Earnhardt’s Chance2 Motorsports team was a key starting spot for future Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., and Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team elevated future Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

It is what Earnhardt has done for others that stand out to his friend Truex.

“You look at just his impact on the sport,” Truex told NBC Sports. “Now he’s a broadcaster (for NBC Sports). … I really admire his passion for the sport and how much he puts into everything he does and his commitment the people around that he cares about. Very special guy.”

Car owner Rick Hendrick told a story Friday about how Earnhardt, when he was driving for Hendrick during the recession, told Hendrick to take $1 million out of his salary to make sure his team members were taken care of financially.

Hendrick said the team didn’t do it. Earnhardt then went to the office and made sure they did what he wanted with his salary.

“That’s the heart of Dale Earnhardt,” Hendrick said. “it was taking care of the folks in the organization.”

After Hendrick shared the story, Earnhardt told his former boss: “I got to credit, obviously all the people that I’m around me that influence you to make choices like that. You would have done the same thing. I was influenced by you in that moment, by my sister, by anybody else that I’ve worked with and dealt with. You’re a product of the people that you spend time with and the environment that you spend time in. … It’s people like you that sets such a good example for people like me.”

Earnhardt continues to strive for more in his role as a broadcaster for NBC Sports since retiring from full-time Cup competition after the 2017 season.

Earlier this month, he took part in the NASCAR organizational test at Daytona International Speedway. He drove a Hendrick Motorsports car both days. Earnhardt told NBC Sports he wanted to learn as much about the car to help him convey that to fans when he’s in the broadcast booth.

“I’m going to stand around and listen to everything they’re talking about (at the Daytona test) try to learn everything I can about this car,” he said before the test. “Try to take notes and document my experience so when I’m standing up there in the booth and something pops up, I can lean on that a little bit.”