“Ran Over Me Like His Daddy Would”: When Dale Earnhardt Jr Left Dale Jarrett Speechless and Started Coming Out of Father’s Shadow

Published 11/14/2023, 2:15 PM EST

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Seven championships, 68 Cup and 21 Busch Series race wins—Dale Earnhardt had already amassed these monumental achievements before his son’s NASCAR debut. Accordingly, Dale Earnhardt Jr prepared himself for relentless comparisons when he drove in his first Xfinity race in 1996. 

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The very next year, the racing community glimpsed the Intimidator’s ferocity and skill in his son when Dale Jr raced alongside Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett at the Michigan International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr was a sight to behold as he channeled his inner Intimidator

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Dale Earnhardt Jr ended his career as a racing luminary in his own right. He won two Xfinity championships and 50 NASCAR races, including the prestigious Daytona 500 twice before retiring as a full-timer in 2017. But in the beginning, Dale Jr grappled with uncertainty and doubt at the prospect of following his father’s legendary stature. In a recent conversation with veteran driver Kenny Wallace, Junior recalled his desire to dispel those notions.

Dale Jr chose the 1997 Busch Series race in Michigan. Even though it was merely his 6th-ever start, sheer determination helped Junior finish in the Top 10 ahead of established drivers. Looking back on that moment, Dale Jr said, “I remember racing in my first Xinity race at Michigan. I’m running seventh in this #31 blue car. I’m only running like five-six races that year, just trying to prove that I belong in there.”

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In order to do so, Dale Jr did not shy away from unleashing the same intensity and aggressiveness that was synonymous with Dale Sr. So much so that Dale Jarrett wondered if the Intimidator himself was commanding the #31 racecar. Continuing his tale, Junior told Wallace, “I’m racing with Dale Jarrett. He’s in the #32 Band-Aid car, big old Ford. I catch him off of [turn] two and I bump him in the left rear and he came over the radio and said, ‘Y’all sure that’s Junior in that car, not his daddy? Just ran over me like his daddy would.’”

There is increased awareness and encouragement toward clean racing in the modern generation, but during that time, minor bumps were common practice- which he clearly used well to his advantage. Dale Jr explained, “When I first started in my career, when you called a guy, you ran into him a little bit, you use that little right front headlight and kind of slide them on up the racetrack a little bit- just get them up off the bottom and go by them.” 

But it wasn’t until his first trophy in 1998 that Junior received the acknowledgment he truly craved.

Dale Earnhardt Jr made his father proud in his rookie season

Dale Earnhardt Jr has often reflected on his father’s “tough love” style of parenting. The racing legend was not one to fuss and coddle his son in his rookie season. But Junior knew the one achievement that would make Dale Sr sit up and applaud. While the entire grid drove for the season’s title, Dale Jr aimed for his father’s unabashed praise in his rookie Xfinity season. 

Watch this story: Tears Behind the Wheel: Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Hidden Struggles

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A few years ago, Junior appeared in the Scene Vault podcast and shared, All my life he [Dale Earnhardt] has looked at me like, ‘When’s this kid gonna figure it out? When’s this kid gonna show me something or quit disappointing me?’ I guess as a father you just want your kids to be excellent and you want them to excel and you want him to show initiative and drive and determination and I maybe wasn’t showing him what he was looking for.”

His life’s wait came to fruition when Dale Jr won 7 races to secure the 1998 championship in his very first season as a full-time driver. The excitement of winning the trophy paled in comparison to the emotions he witnessed on Dale Sr’s thrilled visage. Junior then revealed, I saw the pride. I saw the love and the happiness and joy that I’d hoped I would see.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr would go on to cherish that invaluable memory as his constant motivation and guiding light in the years to come. 

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Written by:

Parika Singh

246Articles

One take at a time

I began my motorsport journey in the European lanes of Formula 1, but after years of predictability, I ventured into the road courses and oval tracks of the United States. Upon discovering NASCAR, I was fascinated by the anecdotal gems waiting to be uncovered. Since I am a storyteller by heart, NASCAR gave me the perfect canvas with its cherished camaraderie and ancient rivalries.
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Edited by:

Nischal Kandpal

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