I couldn't be more sad, and happy, at the same time.
I have been very lucky to have spent many occasions and interviews with Dale Jr, and I've always walked away from them amazed at how down to earth, and normal he was. That's really something considering he alone is responsible for more than 25% of the merch sold in Nascar. This guy was/is bigger than the sport. You can argue that, but in todays world, you'd be wrong.
I remember the first time he came to sit with us at NHMS. I was pretty nervous because he had just lost his Dad a few months earlier in Daytona. I knew it was something we had to talk about, but I wanted to make sure that we did it in a respectful way, and in a way that showed him we weren't like other media when it came to stuff like that. He was driving the Bud car, and he came up to the suite for our interview. He had only done a few media interviews since Daytona, and I think he was a little nervous too.
I welcomed him to NH, and I simply told him that on behalf of all the race fans in New England, our thoughts and prayers have been with and his family, and that we were all pulling for him. He graciously responded, and nodded to me in appreciation. You could see it in his eyes. It was real. I began the interview, and I didn't ask any other questions about his Dad. It felt too personal to invade that privacy. And as I sat there talking to him - all I could think of was how strong he was to even be sitting there. If I were him, I'd zip up the public relations wagon and not talk to anyone. Who'd blame you if you just lost your Dad? He didn't, though. He faced the responsibilities, and handled them with grace. And when the chat was over, he shook my hand and said "Thanks for being so cool about everything man, I really appreciate it very much".
Through the years he's been on with us several times, and many times (as in the photo above) it was in front of a crowd of about 300 people at the Magic Mile Club at NHMS. And of all the driver interviews I've done with drivers there- the response the crowd gave him was louder than all the others put together.
New England loves them some Junior.
There were days when you could tell he was all business, and there were others where he was loose, talkative and funny. Man, I loved those interviews.
He was a guy that was in constant demand. The dude couldn't take a piss in the garage area without a crowd following him begging for autographs. He always handled it with dignity.
Someone commented today to me that he had never won a championship and his actual race record wasn't worthy of the attention he got. They also said he won 14 Most Popular Driver awards because of his last name.
I'm sorry, but that right there is pure bullshit.
True, his name didn't hurt- but the love he got from fans was from the way he carried himself- with the weight of the entire sport on his back (and the burden of having to grieve the greatest legend in the sport - his dad- publicly). Dale Jr earned those votes because of who he is. He's a normal guy who just HAPPENED to have the name Earnhardt. I loved that when he won - sometimes he'd never even say the sponsors name! NOBODY does that! I love how if he screwed up - he SAID he screwed up. He took it like a man. And he always did it with class.
That's why people love the guy.
And as sad as I am that he won't be driving anymore after this season - I'm thrilled for him as a person who got to call his own shot. I love seeing him happy. And so do all the fans. They want nothing but the best for Nascar's favorite son.
And if you ask me - he deserves nothing less.
Right on, Junior. I'm with you all the way -
ps. watch the announcement below - and see how classy this guy is...