Dale Earnhardt Jr. headlines NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2021
Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent his whole life chasing meaningful rewards.
He waited for a pat on the back from his famous father, worked diligently to generate compliments from crew members and other drivers, and reveled in the roar of his fans — those he inherited from his father and the new ones he brought along for the ride.
NASCAR’s longtime fan favorite received the sport’s biggest honor Tuesday, when he was selected to join his father in the series’ Hall of Fame. Earnhardt will be inducted in Charlotte, North Carolina, along with the late Mike Stefanik and 87-year-old Red Farmer, who is planning to race on Talladega’s dirt track this weekend. Ralph Seagraves was named the Landmark Award winner for his contributions to the sport.
Despite never winning a series championship, Earnhardt received 76% of the votes cast on the modern era ballot.
“Just talking about it, it’s really emotional because I feed off affirmation,” he said wistfully. “It’s such a great feeling to know people think I made an impact. I know what my numbers are, and I feel like I was chosen because of that, but also for the impact I made off the track, being an ambassador for the sport.”
Junior’s grandfather, Ralph, went into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997 and was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. Junior’s father, The Intimidator, also made the list, even before finishing his career with 76 wins and a record-tying seven Cup titles.
The team-owning father gave Dale Jr. his first big break: a full-time ride in the Busch Series in 1998. It didn’t take long for Junior to prove he was a natural — on and off the track.
He won Busch championships in each of his first two seasons and two races as a rookie Cup driver in 2000.
When the elder Earnhardt was killed during the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior suddenly found himself in a place he never imagined.
“I knew when Dad died, I was going to assume most if not all of his fan base, and I feel like I took care of that,” he said. “I didn’t squander that, I didn’t ruin that, and I also introduced myself to a lot of people who never heard of Dale Earnhardt.”
Suddenly, the brash, 26-year-old Earnhardt emerged as the face of the sport and started adding his chapter to the family legacy. He won 26 races — including two Daytona 500s and the 2001 Pepsi 400, the first Cup race held at Daytona after his father’s death — before retiring as a full-time Cup driver following the 2017 season.
Fans watched to see if he could replicate the fearless style that made his father so popular. But Junior never tried to compete with that image.
“There was a point in my career where I started to think I’m not going to win seven championships; I might not even win one. I’m not going to win 100 races; I might not even win 40,” he said. “There were a lot of people that wanted me to be as successful as he was and be as aggressive as he was and spin people out or whatever. So I started to think about what I could do outside of that and what else I could do to help the sport.”
Junior introduced new fans to stock car racing through different news outlets, social media and podcasts. The result: 15 consecutive Most Popular Driver awards.
Stefanik won seven titles in NASCAR’s modified series and two more in the Busch North series. His nine total championships are tied with that of Richie Evans for the most in NASCAR history, and Stefanik was named the second-greatest driver in modified history in 2003.
Stefanik, who died from injuries sustained in a plane crash in September in Connecticut at age 61, edged Ricky Rudd for the second spot on the ballot with 49% of the vote.
“Phenomenal when you think about what he did. Nine championships,” Kyle Petty said during NBCSN’s announcement show. “Phenomenal record, phenomenal amount of wins.”
The 87-year-old Farmer won four Late Model Sportsman season titles and an estimated 700 to 900 races. He was a member of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and became a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2004. This week, with the big series returning to Talladega, he’s scrambling to put together a car for two nights of racing on the dirt track across the street.
“I had a little fender bender in a 40-lapper last weekend,” he said. “They had a three- or four-car pileup right in front of me, and I slid into it and messed up the nose pretty good. So I’m getting my backup car ready.”
An executive with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Seagraves helped spearhead Winston’s decision to sponsor NASCAR’s premier series from 1971 to 2003. Winston’s financial support allowed many tracks to upgrade their facilities, and the season-long points fund bolstered purses for drivers and teams.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.