After the fans have emptied out of Charlotte Motor Speedway, after the engines have fallen silent and the stock cars have been packed up in their haulers, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finally have to leave.
Maybe he’ll walk down pit road here one last time as a driver, peer into Victory Lane, where he once celebrated all those years ago.
Maybe he’ll tweet, as is his custom, or tear up at the finality of it all.
But eventually he will leave, and when he does, it won’t be the same as leaving Talladega or Daytona or any other track for the last time. It’ll be different, because after the Bank of America 500 when Earnhardt drives out of his home track – the one he shared with his grandfather Ralph and his late father, Dale – it’ll be the end of an era.
It’ll be the end of three generations of Earnhardts racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“This track’s been real special to me,” Earnhardt said. “Been coming here a real long time, got a lot of memories here in and out of the car.”
‘What’s going to happen when we don’t have one left?’
Long before there was Jr., and even before there was Sr., there was Ralph.
The eldest Earnhardt grew up in nearby Kannapolis, and he made his name as a dirt track legend years before his son or grandson ever got started. After becoming one of the first full-time drivers in 1953, he won the 1956 NASCAR Sportsman Championship.
“A hundred lap race in Columbia, he had a car there that was just better than anybody, but he never showed his hand,” said NASCAR historian Humpy Wheeler, who is also the former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “For 98 laps, he ran third, fourth, and fifth. With two laps to go, he passes the leader like he’s having a struggle and wins the race.”
But in addition to his own accomplishments, which landed him on the list of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, his name lived on through his son, Dale.
Related stories from The Charlotte Observer
Before Earnhardt Sr. rose to his legendary status as arguably the greatest driver of all-time and won seven NASCAR championships, there were questions about whether or not he could live up to Ralph’s namesake. Of course he answered those, copying his father both on and off the track.
“Ralph and Dale were clones of each other,” Wheeler said. “We always wondered, What’s going to happen when we don’t have one left?
“And finally Junior came along.”
‘If he wasn’t proud then, I don’t know if he ever was’
Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t born until 1974, the year after Ralph passed away. But that never stopped him, even as a boy, from learning about his family’s still-developing legacy.
“You can never,” Earnhardt Jr. said, “hear enough stories about your granddad.”
But the easiest way for Earnhardt Jr. to learn about his family history wasn’t by hearing about it – it was by watching it firsthand. From the time he was little, his father would bring him around Charlotte Motor Speedway for races, planting that same love for cars in the next generation. The family would park on the hill next to the road course, and Dale Jr. would roll his small plastic cars down it.
“I remember Sam Ard beat Dad one time in the ‘83 Xfinity race, and it was (near) my birthday, and I was like, ‘Man, who is this guy and how is he beating my dad?’” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know who he is ... I don’t know why he’s outrunning my dad.”
By the time Earnhardt Sr. hit his prime, winning four championships in five years in the early 90’s, his son had started to emerge as a driver, too. It wasn’t until 2000, during The Winston (NASCAR’s all-star race) at Charlotte Motor Speedway, that father and son finally coalesced on the track.
In the days before that race, Wheeler, then the track president, made his usual prediction for the race’s winner. He chose Earnhardt Jr., which did not go over well with Dad.
“It made his daddy so mad,” Wheeler said. “He called me just ranting and raving, ‘You put too much pressure on that boy!’ I said that’s who I think is gonna win.
“And doggone if he didn’t do it.”
Earnhardt Jr. won that race, the only time he’s done so at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he even passed his father in the closing laps. Then in Victory Lane, father and son embraced, and celebrated a moment also too perfect to have been scripted.
“It was great that Dad was in the race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “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 if he ever was.”
That magic name
Unfortunately, the era of two Earnhardts dominating the Cup Series was short-lived. Less than a year after that indelible moment, Earnhardt Sr. died when he hit the wall in the final turn of the 2001 Daytona 500. He was 49.
And then, Earnhardt Jr. was the only one left.
But rather than withering under the weight of his family legacy, he excelled. He went on to be NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row, not to mention almost winning a championship of his own in 2003. If he doesn’t win another race this season, he’ll retire with 26 wins in the Cup Series.
“Dale Jr. should be known for what he is, which is a guy who had a huge legacy set upon him ... and I think he’s handled it with class,” said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s former crew chief. “Of course he would’ve liked to have won more, and of course he would’ve liked to have won this year, but I don’t think either of those define his legacy.”
Instead, Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy – his family’s legacy – is the palpable one still present at the track this weekend. The Earnhardt license plates on converted schoolbuses; the Dale Jr. T-shirts and No. 88 flags on posts in the infield – it’s all in honor of one of the sport’s most notable families.
“Senior and Junior were two different people, but they had that magic name that really resounded with fans, and it’ll really be missed now,” Wheeler said. “I wish there was another Earnhardt out there.”
And while technically there is (Jeffrey, Earnhardt Jr.’s 28-year-old nephew, races in the Cup Series but so far has never finished better than 41st), the Earnhardt era at Charlotte Motor Speedway essentially comes to a close with this final race.
“The track certainly owes me a lot,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I grew up around here. My granddaddy lived right off Turn 1 over there, 500 yards out ... It’s been a great race track, and my dad caught a lot of breaks here early in his career to get going.
“I’ve been coming here and enjoying this race track for a long, long time.”
So after this final race, Earnhardt Jr. will eventually have to drive out of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He can take away his car, his hauler and his crew, but the Earnhardt legacy is something that will never leave this track.