Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Happy Birthday, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver adds another candle to his birthday cake today; he turns 43 years old.

As an outsider looking in who has observed Dale Earnhardt Jr. for many years, it is an exciting time for him.

Introduced to the public as a boy – Dale Earnhardt’s boy – Dale Jr. was living in the shadow of his famous father.

Growing into a young man with driving talent, we watched as Dale Jr. raced hard and well and carved a name for himself with two NASCAR Busch Series championships and then with wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

His father’s strong arms were never far away. His influence was ever-present.

And then the unthinkable happened and Dale Jr. was left to live life without his father.

There were ups and downs. Successes and failures. High hopes and dashed dreams. A parting of the ways between Dale Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Incorporated was the start of a new chapter in Dale Jr.’s life.

More time elapsed with still more failures on the track than successes.

Finally a turning point occurred.

Solid finishes, consistency, a driver with focus, determination, and optimism.

Personally, Dale Jr. seemed happier than ever before. His smile was genuine, his shoulders not slumped in despair.

And then the 2014 season dawned at Daytona. Dale Jr. won the Great American race for the second time in his career – a feat even his father could never claim.

The win took enormous pressure off of the driver and team under the brand new Chase format as they had secured a spot after the first race of the season.

But Dale Jr. and his No. 88 team continued to work hard.

Two more wins followed, both at Pocono Raceway. I was fortunate to be at both races.

My vantage point in Victory Lane allowed me to see up close and personally the complete and utter joy that flowed from Dale Jr.

In June Dale Jr. shook hands with every crew member, took endless pictures, and conducted countless television and radio interviews. He was then escorted into the media center at Pocono Raceway and sat patiently and unhurriedly answering every question hurled at him.

Dale Jr. answered thoughtfully, spoke eloquently, and was so in the moment.  At the same time he was calm, present, and so very happy.

In his return to Pocono Raceway in August there was a zest and confidence that Dale Jr. exuded. Perhaps it was bravado or simply a guy having fun, but it was different than I’d seen him in the past.

A sweep of Pocono capped Dale Jr.’s summer and showed the other drivers in the series and Dale Jr.’s fans and detractors that he was, indeed, a true competitor and, in fact, the real deal.

Of course, the unfailingly loyal fans of Dale Jr. – Junior Nation – have always known that to be true.

I asked Dale Jr. a question in August 2014 that made him reveal a bit about his personal life. I asked him what his Simple Joys were.

Dale Jr. mentioned Amy first.

Amy Reimann has been Dale Jr.’s companion for several years and seems to truly make him happy and content. On New Year's Eve 2016 they officially wed. 

He also mentioned beer and Redskin football.

For a week following Pocono and my question, any time Dale Jr. was interviewed the Simple Joy question was re-asked. He changed his answer slightly, but it was the response he gave me on the spot that shows how deeply happy – joyful – Dale Jr. is in life.

The 2015 season saw Dale Jr. take home three more wins. But luck hasn't been on the side of the No. 88 team. Winless in both 2016 and currently in 2017, Dale Jr. will have to be satisfied with whatever circumstances ends his 19 years in NASCAR's top series. He has a long list of accomplishments, wins, and Favorite Driver honors to bolster his ego.

Regardless, Dale Jr. is on top of the world. With personal life, career, family fulfilling him, Dale Jr. needn’t win a Cup to be successful.

Now Dale Jr. looks ahead to a new chapter in his ever-evolving life.

Dale Jr. will become a NASCAR broadcaster on NBC.
This is footage of Dale Jr. guest-broadcasting for Fox.

At 43 Dale Jr. seems to have figured out what's important in his life, how to re-invent himself, and continue to be the unparalleled ambassador for the sport in which he's lived his entire life.

Happy Birthday, Dale Jr.