Who Is Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
“Gentlemen, start your engines!”
With those four words, the 2004 Daytona 500 was underway. The five-hundred-mile auto race is one of the biggest events in sports, attracting drivers from all over the world. Among those revving their motors at the starting grid was twenty-nine-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.
Dale had never won the Daytona 500. But he had an extra-special reason to want to win this one. Exactly six years earlier, on February 15, 1998, Dale’s father had won his first Daytona 500 on this very track. Now it was “Junior’s” turn. Dale even had the date stamped on the hood of his car to inspire him to victory: 15 FEB 2004.
After a few practice laps to get the cars revved up and ready, actress Whoopi Goldberg dropped the green flag—and the race was on!
From the start, it was a close one. Dale took the early lead, his white car emblazoned with a red #8 zipping around the track. A crowd of nearly two hundred thousand cheered him on through every tight turn. But the other drivers would not let up the chase. They had victory on their minds as well. Jeff Gordon surged into the lead at one point. Then Tony Stewart passed them both. It was going to be a fight to the finish.
With just under thirty laps to go, Dale decided it was time to make his move. For the next eight trips around the track, he tried every trick he knew to edge Tony Stewart out of the top spot. But Stewart blocked him every time. At last, Dale saw an opening. He dropped back behind Stewart, sneaked around the side, then gunned his engine. In one burst, #8 surged to the head of the pack.
With only a few laps to go, all Dale had to do was hold on to his lead. Tony Stewart did all he could to keep up, but Junior kept him from pulling ahead. He crossed the finish line, taking first place by less than one second. The winner’s trophy—and a prize of more than $1 million—belonged to him.
After the race, Dale headed to a special part of the track called Victory Lane to celebrate with the fans. Along the way, he leaned out of the driver’s side window, punching his fist in the air and whooping with joy. “This has got to be the greatest day of my life!” he told the cheering crowd. It was his fifth try at winning the Daytona 500. His dad had also lost there many times before finally winning the “Great American Race.”
Dale was filled with pride as he left the track that afternoon. He had finally achieved his number one goal in racing. And though he was sad that his father was not there to see it, he believed that he had done his family proud. Most NASCAR fans would agree. Dale Sr. had always been a favorite with the crowds at Daytona. Now they had a new hero named Earnhardt to cheer for.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. would go on to win many more races after that one. He was named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver fifteen years in a row—a record streak. He would even return to Victory Lane at Daytona. But that first victory may have been the sweetest of them all. Chapter 1: Coming Up Fast
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was born on October 10, 1974, in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers. His mother, Brenda Gee Earnhardt, was the daughter of a master race car builder. So you could say Dale Jr. had racing in his blood.
When Dale was a toddler, his parents got divorced. Dale and his sister, Kelley, who was two years older than him, lived with their mom, Brenda. Three years after the divorce, their house caught on fire and burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt. With no place to go, Brenda moved to Norfolk, Virginia, to stay with her own mother. Dale and Kelley stayed behind in North Carolina and moved in with their dad. Their mom remained close to them and would often come back to visit.
It was fun having a NASCAR star for a father. On race days, Dale would sit on the living room carpet playing with Matchbox cars while listening to the radio broadcast of his dad’s race. He and Kelley also liked to watch Dale Sr. work on his cars in the garage.
But the busy life of a NASCAR driver was hard on the family as well. From February to November, Dale Sr. raced almost every weekend in a different town. He could afford to pay babysitters, nannies, and housekeepers to look after Dale Jr. and Kelley, but he was often away from home.
Their father may not have been around a lot, but Kelley was always there for Dale.
She became like a second mom to her little brother. At school, she gave him lunch money and tried to keep him out of trouble on the playground. Because Dale was smaller than other kids his age, he got picked on a lot. Kelley made sure to protect him from bullies.
Like a lot of children who are bullied, Dale began to act out in school—and at home. One time, he came upon a glass bottle full of coins in his father’s bedroom. He pulled the antenna off his father’s car, stuck some tape to the end of it, and fished more than eighty dollars worth of quarters out of the bottle. He used the money to buy a Game Boy.
When the housekeeper discovered what Dale had done, she told his father. Dale Sr. had locks put on every door of the house. Then he hid the keys so Junior couldn’t raid any more change jars.
Clearly, Dale needed something constructive to do with his time and energy. When he was twelve, he started racing go-karts on the streets. But he crashed so many times his father ordered him to stop.
At school, Dale continued pulling pranks and getting into fights with other boys. Even Kelley couldn’t keep him out of trouble anymore. Dale Sr. began to worry that Dale might fail school and have to leave. After thinking about it for a long time, he decided to send Dale away to a military school. Kelley still wanted to keep an eye on her little brother, so she went with him and enrolled there, too.
Oak Ridge Military Academy was very different from the public school Dale had left behind. Students at Oak Ridge had to wake up every morning at 6:30 and did not get to go to bed until the bugle sounded at 10:00 at night. Before breakfast, Dale had to shine his shoes and polish the brass buttons on his uniform. He ate all his meals in a large “mess hall” and had to study for two hours at his desk every night from Sunday through Thursday. The only time he got to spend alone, without someone watching over him, was from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day. Worst of all, if he broke any of the school rules, he was not allowed to go home on the weekend.
Dale made sure to follow all the rules and stay out of trouble. He stopped misbehaving in class and started getting better grades. After a year and a half at Oak Ridge, it was time for him to move on. He returned home and began his freshman year at Mooresville High School.
Though life at military school was difficult, Dale learned a lot. He believed that his time at Oak Ridge had made him a better person. Now he needed a new challenge. And if he thought he was going to have it easy at Mooresville High, he was wrong. Chapter 2: Off to the Races
Dale had a hard time fitting in at his new school. He wasn’t considered one of the “cool kids” and had difficulty making friends. He also had trouble finding a sport that was right for him. Because he was too small for football, he played soccer his freshman year. But he was not very good at it. He often dreamed about being behind the wheel of a race car, like his father.
When he turned sixteen in 1990, Dale got his driver’s license. This was his big chance. He sold one of his old go-karts for $500. Then he headed down to the town junkyard and used the money to buy his first car—a 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. It was ten years old and not in the best condition, but it was all his.
Around that time, Dale also became friends with his half brother, Kerry, Dale Sr.’s son from a previous marriage. Kerry, who was then twenty-one, shared Dale’s love of racing and offered to help him transform the Monte Carlo into a top-notch race car.
Together, Dale and Kerry spent nearly every weekend working on the car. Luckily, the Monte Carlo had no dents. The motor ran just fine. It didn’t take them long to get it into tip-top shape. The boys even painted a number on its side like a real NASCAR vehicle. Now they just had to find a place to race.
Dale heard about a nearby track that was starting up a new race series for “street stock” cars—cars without any special modifications. Concord Motorsports Park allowed young drivers to compete on a quarter-mile asphalt “short track” on weekends. It was a great way for a new racer like Dale to practice. Best of all, you got paid no matter where you finished, so even the worst drivers got to go home with some prize money.
For the next two years, Dale and Kerry took turns behind the wheel of the Monte Carlo at Motorsports Park. On weekdays, Dale continued to attend classes at Mooresville High. And every evening he’d head into the garage to try to add some new improvement to his car.
After graduating from high school, Dale enrolled in Mitchell Community College. He earned a college degree in automotive technology and worked part-time as a mechanic in his father’s garage. He learned how to fix engines, change oil, and repair tires on the fly. All the while he kept racing.
Dale quickly learned that he could make more money racing cars than repairing them. Even when he came in last in a race, he still took home more prize money than he would earn in a week working in his father’s garage! Dale became convinced that he should make racing his full-time career.
The next level up after street stock is the late-model division. In 1992, the year he turned eighteen, Dale set his sights on conquering this division. He traded in the old Monte Carlo for a new car—a sleek, fast, modern race car. Now instead of just having Kerry help him keep his car in condition, Dale had a pit crew, or team, working by his side.
Dale ran his first late-model race at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina. He didn’t win. In fact, it would take him nearly two years to win a race on the late-model circuit. In all, he won only three out of the 113 races he entered. Though he didn’t get to take home many trophies, Dale did finish in the top ten more often than not. Most important of all, he was gaining experience and earning the respect of his fellow drivers.
In 1996, Dale got an exciting big break. When another driver had to drop out, he was invited to fill in for him in a race in the Busch Series, NASCAR’s highest minor league. Now he was just one step away from joining his father on the most challenging circuit in American racing!
Dale’s first Busch Series race did not go as well as he hoped. He finished fourteenth, taking home just $1,880 in prize money. But it was a start. Afterwards, Dale’s uncle Danny Earnhardt called Dale Sr. and reported: “The boy can drive.”
The next year, Dale continued to race part-time in the Busch Series. All told, he earned more than $50,000 in prize money. As 1998 dawned, Dale felt like he was climbing his way to the top ranks of NASCAR. The race was on—and he was just getting revved up.
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