As a NASCAR reporter in the first decade of the 2000s, I can tell you: I wasn't a big fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr. I wasn't anti-Dale, I just wasn't anything Dale.
I remember sitting in Dale Jr.'s pit in July 2005, about 10 feet away from him during the then Daytona Busch Series summer race after he'd been wrecked. Yes, as a journalist you're not really supposed to be a fan of anything. I can't disagree with that. Dale Jr. was incredibly likable. Four years removed from losing his Dad only a few 100 yards away, he was amicable when many other drivers weren't. But, aside from being a decent dude, he seemed like only slightly above average when it came to racing talent. I'd say there were at least 10 drivers in that same race weekend at Daytona who were better than he was that year.
Today, when it comes to being a voice of NASCAR, he has no peer. I don't mean in the broadcast booth, I mean a real voice, a podcaster ... he's the best. Now I know how absolutely critical he is in the sport, as a personality. We're not talking about Michael Waltrip or Kenny Wallace kind of voice — two guys who have been essential to the sport because of their personalities, but didn't accomplish a whole lot on the track — we're talking about the most important voice the sport has ever seen. That's Dale Jr.
Dale Jr. is candid, opinionated, sincere, knowledgeable, an absolute historian/nerd of the history of the sport — and he also won two-dozen or so races in the highest series of the sport. The dude gives a damn about this sport that gave him and his family so much. He loves his former competitors, and they love him back. He's an outstanding interviewer, which takes love. Yep, I typed love. He brings out the best in everybody he brings on, and he and his co-host Mike Davis have made their podcast the landing spot of the NASCAR — and clearly the best podcast in any sport.
Again, I honestly think he was a 7 out of 10 race-car driver. If you did a silent ranking among the Top 100 drivers still alive in NASCAR? I'm pretty sure they'd agree, anonymously. Dale Jr. was in the same realm with like, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, and Ricky Rudd. Clearly more talented than 75-80 percent of NASCAR, but not in the final 20-25 percent.
But, when it has come to Dale Jr.'s Hall of Fame contribution to the sport of NASCAR when it comes to passion? He is clearly the all-time greatest. And I put him above his father in that regard. Chase Elliott may be the most popular driver right now, but there's no way Bill Elliott's son will ever have the ability to top what Dale Jr. does currently.
One thing that blows me away about his podcasts is how unbelievably open he is about how Feb. 2001 went. Hell, I watched my Dad die of cancer before my eyes in June 2013, and I swear it isn't getting better in my brain — and it is brutally hard to talk about it, much less in front of an audience. I don't know how Dale Jr. can discuss a damned accident that happened right in front of his eyes, one that actually benefited him and a teammate — and he's cool and calm discussing it. He's also cool and calm discussing his father's flaws and his amazing strengths.
I'll tell you this: as he and I are creeping toward 50? He transcends the sport. I'd argue that he's taught more NASCAR history to fans than anybody who has ever come along. His show about historical tracks in the sport, his participation in bringing back Wilkesboro in a few weeks, his ability to bring in an 80 year old or a 28 year old and smoothly weave a fascinating discussion together? That's not something you're taught, that's something you're born with. It's preservation.
No, he didn't win 50 or 75 races, but some people transcend their sport in other ways, and he was still successful on the track, too.
I don't check the calendar for podcast releases for any other show — except his. When it gets released midweek, I make sure I have some data research/input or something to work on so I can put it on for one or two hours and enjoy learning something new. It's a mixture of racing, pop culture, being a Dad in your 40s, historical context, you name it.
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