CHARLOTTE — The first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced cars at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was 1983.
He was 9 years old at the time and the cars were only toys. He and future crew chief Tony Eury Jr. would roll them down the hill on the infield road course while his father drove the real thing to NASCAR glory around the big track.
Dale Jr. has gone on to become a star in his own right, nearly as popular as his old man, which is why Sunday was such a bittersweet occasion for both the retiring driver and his legion of loyal fans. When he climbed out of his blue and silver No. 88 Chevrolet after a nondescript 12th place finish at the Bank of America 500, it marked the last time he will have raced a car at the venue that he referred to as his second home.
“This track has been real special to me,” said Earnhardt, who grew up only a few miles up Interstate 85 in Kannapolis. “This is one of the few tracks that I probably never missed a race since I was a little boy. I’ve been coming here a really long time (and) have a lot of memories here in and out of the car.”
Those hoping for Earnhardt to make one final memory in his farewell performance at Charlotte came away disappointed Sunday.
But that was hardly a surprise.
In 30 races this season, he’s finished in the top five only once, to go along with five top 10s and a single pole. He was also put at a disadvantage when he crashed his primary car in practice Friday, forcing him to use a backup ride he complained was “undriveable” over his radio after the first of the race’s three stages.
Chances are he still probably wouldn’t have won even if everything had gone according to plan.
Earnhardt never won a points race at his home track. He did, however, take the checkered flag in NASCAR’s All-Star race in 2000, passing another second-generation driver — Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Cup champion who is the last driver from N.C. to win a title — to earn the victory that remains one of his favorite career achievements.
“That was an incredible experience and a big surprise for all of us,” he said. “We just couldn’t believe it. And it was great that Dad was in the race and we passed him at the end, among many guys we passed.
“He got to see it happen. He had a great view of the whole thing. I don’t know if he wasn’t proud then, I don’t know that he ever was. But it was a big deal and he was really happy.”
Earnhardt Jr. may have had to fight for the approval of his sometimes crusty father, but he very rarely let his fans down.
He won their hearts by returning to Daytona just four months after Dale Sr. was killed in a crash there and drove to an emotional victory in the Pepsi 400. It was one of his 26 career victories. Although he never won a series championship, a feat his father accomplished a record seven times, his charismatic popularity helped make him the most popular driver on the Monster Energy Cup Series for the past 14 seasons.
His stature on the circuit in general and Charlotte in particular was vividly illustrated this weekend by the bobblehead that was issued to commemorate his final race in North Carolina. The cover of the race program also featured a depiction of his growth at the track through the years.
Despite the added attention from NASCAR and the fans, Earnhardt did his best to downplay the significance of Sunday’s race — saying that he is still too focused on trying to win to get caught up in the nostalgia of his impending retirement.
True to his word, there were no tears or sentimental statements when he emerged from his car. He simply pulled on a blue and red hat with his sponsor’s logo on it and talked about next week’s race in Talladega.
“I wish we could have done a little better obviously,” was about all he had to say.
So do the many fans in attendance who came wearing his colors. But where he finished didn’t matter as much to them as was the opportunity to say goodbye and see their hero race one more time in person.
“It’s sad and happy at the same time,” said Danny Miller, a Concord resident who was a fan of Dale Sr. before carrying his allegiance over to his son. “If I could say anything to Junior, we all love him no matter what he does.”
His absence from the circuit next year will create a void that will only make NASCAR’s battle against a dwindling fan base that much more difficult.
But at least one former Earnhardt associate believes that racing will be just fine without a member of its first family in the field for the first time in four decades.
“There are so many up-and-coming young superstars that I think the fan base that cheers for Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to just find their next favorite,” former crew chief Steve Letarte told Charlotte’s NPR affiliate, WFAE. “I don’t think it’ll all go to one guy. I don’t think one person can step into the shoes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., but I do think there is a class of young stars that can fill the void.”
Before that happens, Earnhardt is being given a sendoff befitting his stature in the NASCAR community. Only instead of getting the kind of gifts usually associated with a farewell tour — rocking chairs, grandfather clocks, plaques, etc. — he’s asked for the tracks he visits for the final time to make more meaningful gestures of their appreciation.
Management at Charlotte Motor Speedway complied by announcing the creation of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion Research Fund at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital.
It’s a cause near and dear to the driver’s heart, since he missed the final six races of last season while suffering from lingering concussion symptoms after a crash at Michigan last June. The injury played a role in Earnhardt’s decision to retire.
“I didn’t need any silly stuff and goofy gifts that I am just going to go take home and put in a warehouse and store away somewhere and never see,” he said. “I thought this is a great opportunity to sort of make an impact in each little area in each community and if the tracks can get creative it would be awesome to see what they come up with.
“It feels so good to see others get help and be helped. I want everybody to be happy. That is kind of my thing and the way I’ve always been. Hopefully, this season makes a lot of people happy, so that is the deal.”