Thursday, May 22, 2008

Being an Earnhardt Fan, Part 2

Fans of both Earnhardts are alike in one way. Both are unshakable in their faith and belief in their driver. There are many who are fans of both, including me. Over the years, I have found myself defending both Earnhardts, Dale because other fans said he drove 'dirty', or deliberately wrecked people. I've defended Dale Jr. because he supposedly has no talent, or that he's overrated.

Often, we as Earnhardt fans find ourselves in an 'us versus them' mentality, because at times we feel like the rest of the Nascar world is against us. At times, that seems to be true. Dale and Dale Jr. have drawn controversy in the fan world ever since both drivers began their careers. Dale came from basically nothing. His father Ralph was a successful race car driver, but Dale was largely a self made man, and a self made race car driver. Dale practically starved to race. Dale suffered through 2 failed marriages, gave up the custody of 3 of his children, and was flat broke many times in his life before he hit the big time. When he did finally achieve success, he married Teresa Houston, who was a stabilizing force in his life. Due to a catastrophic fire, Dale was given custody of Dale Jr. and Kelley, and the Earnhardts settled down into as close to a normal family life as was possible.

Apparently, as we now know, things weren't always fun and games for the two Earnhardt children and their new step mother. Teresa took over a lot of the duties raising the two children, while Dale spent most of his time at the shop or at the track. Although Dale Earnhardt now lived better than he had ever dreamed he would, he did not foolishly waste his hard won money. Dale created a series of businesses, including Dale Earnhardt Inc. Dale also pioneered the marketing of driver themed merchandise. Over the years, Dale Earnhardt single handedly changed the face of Nascar more than any driver in it's history.

The fans of Dale Earnhardt saw a man that was simply unstoppable. Dale never, ever gave up. If the cars had 4 wheels and an engine that would start, he would drive it just as hard, even if he were laps down after an accident. To us, Dale Earnhardt was The Man, the great one, the man that was just too tough to beat. To me and many others, Dale was ten feet tall and bullet proof. Over the years, we saw Dale crawl out of horrible wrecks, and painfully wave at the crowd. It wasn't until much later we found out just how badly he had suffered from his injuries. Dale Earnhardt would climb into another race car a week after breaking bones, and go on an compete for, and often win races.

The day that Dale Earnhardt died was one of the toughest days I've ever endured. I, like many fans, walked around in a fog for days, even weeks afterward. It was just impossible to believe that the greatest driver ever, our hero, was gone. The outpouring of grief from fans was something that I have never seen before, and as touching as it was, is something I hope to never, ever see again.

On that same day, the boy that had been Dale Earnhardt Jr. became a man. Dale Jr.'s emotional interview from the hospital after the 2001 Daytona 500 was heart rending. "I know he'd want us to keep going, so that's what we're gonna do." The following Sunday, FOX Sports showed us a somewhat subdued Dale Jr. sitting on the pit wall at Rockingham, between teammates Steve Park and Michael Waltrip. Steve and Mikey are both talking to him, and Dale Jr. stares gamely ahead, a small, brave smile on his face. In the early laps of the race, Dale Jr. gets spun into the wall, a low speed re-enactment of the horrible wreck we had seen just the week below. This time, all of the Nascar world held it's collective breath.

Dale Jr. limped from the car, and we all were concerned. Dale Jr. later said that basically his foot was going to sleep, mostly because he had drawn his belts tighter than he had ever drawn them before.

I have been a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan since it was first announced in 1997 that he would be driving in the Busch series. I had never seen much of Dale Jr. before that, usually only in a few victory lane celebrations with his father. I remember the young blond kid with the big smile mostly. When Dale Jr. started the 1998 Busch season, he was a young man on a mission. Winning the 1998 and 1999 Busch series championships, Dale was set to roll in the Cup in 2000, with a fantastic sponsor, Budweiser.

Dale Jr. charged out of the box in Cup, much like he had in the Busch series. He won is first race at Texas, his second at Richmond, and he won the Winston in 2000, all in his rookie year. Earnhardt fans everywhere were ecstatic. After the tragedy of February 18, 2001, Dale Jr. went on to win 15 more Cup races, as well as several more Busch races. In 2006 and 2007, we watched the 8 car struggle more and more, and we began hearing more and more about how overrated he was, and how he had no talent, etc. We as the Earnhardt Nation closed ranks around our driver, and when he announced that he was leaving DEI, most of us were happy. Some were not, but in the process we found out who the real fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. were. Some folks could not fathom Dale Jr. driving for anyone but his dad's team, and especially not Rick Hendrick. Those folks were fans of the team, not a fan of The Man, the New Man, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I suppose the Dale Earnhardt fans forget that early on, even after winning his first championship with Rod Osterlund, Dale moved around a bit too. He drove Bud Moore's Fords for a while, and though he won a few races there, he hated the Fords. When Dale reunited with Richard Childress, the two forged more than a team, they forged a bond, and they excelled in a way that has rarely been seen since. As I've said many times before, Dale went to where the racing was. Dale Jr. did the same thing when he moved to Rick Hendrick Motorsports. The racing simply wasn't at DEI anymore.

So far in his first season with Hendrick, Dale Jr. is the class of the team. Dale Jr. sits 3rd in championship points, and is consistently better than even champion teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Though Jimmie has won Hendrick's only points race so far, it has been Dale Jr. that has kept the Hendrick name consistently in the running. Dale Jr. did win his very first race in his new 88 Hendrick Chevrolet, the Bud Shootout, and went on to win his Duel qualifying race. Though Dale Jr. has yet to win a points race this year, his team is beginning to come together, and every race, he and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. seem to be clicking together better and better.

Why are we Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans? I can only speak for myself. Besides his great racing skills, I see a man who has integrity, and who is honest, both with himself and his fans. He takes responsibility for his mistakes to a fault at times. I find myself yelling at the TV "Junior, that was NOT your fault!", as I'm sure do many others. I like Dale Jr.'s complete sincerity, and his honesty. I like him because what you see is what you get. I like him because of his touching concern for his fans. I think that every race he doesn't win, he feels more disappointed for letting his fans down than he does personally for not winning the race. I'm a fan for Dale Jr. because he shows a tremendous amount of class and graciousness, when so many other drivers seem so totally lacking in that capacity. My being a fan of Dale Jr. has practically nothing to do with who his father was, though I was a fan of his too. I am a fan of Dale Jr., because of who he is, and I'm proud of him for who he is, not who his father was.

Dale Jr. will never let me down. Even if he were never to win another race, which he will, Dale Jr. is my favorite driver, and always will be as long as he's behind the wheel.

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