By Beth Lunkenheimer, NASCAR Contributor
Dale Earnhardt Jr. just completed his 600th career start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last weekend at Auto Club Speedway. During that time, the 42-year-old has 26 career victories, including two Daytona 500 wins. Oh, and that doesn’t include that he is also a 14-time Most Popular Driver.
“I just wanted to drive. I wanted to race cars for a living. I wanted to do it well enough to be able to afford to make a living doing it,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t have vision or assume that I was going to make all of the money and success that we have made, but all I really wanted to do was to do it long enough so I didn’t have to get a real job.
“I think back about the wins and maybe not even the wins, some races are really fun and satisfactory, but you are the only one that will remember then because you ran third or fifth or something like that and they are kind of obscure in most people’s minds,” he continued. “I think about winning the All-Star races as a rookie just how fortunate we were to do that. Winning the Daytona 500 twice. I didn’t know that I would even win it once and everything that has happened. The list goes on and on.”
But besides the obvious of his two Daytona 500 victories, there are a handful of other wins that stand out in Junior’s near 20-year career.
2000 DirecTV 500 – Texas Motor Speedway
First career victories are always something special, no matter who scores them or which series they come in, but for Earnhardt Jr. this one meant more. He said before the race that he was going to get his first Cup win that day, even though it was only his seventh career start.
After outlasting 12 cautions and leading a race-high 102 laps, he backed up his statement.
However, perhaps what stands out most from Earnhardt Jr.’s nearly five second victory is the way his dad acted in Victory Lane. Not to be denied as the first person to congratulate his son, the seven-time Cup champion actually pulled on someone’s shoulder and rushed into the driver side window.
2000 The Winston – Charlotte Motor Speedway
Just over a month following his first career win, Junior hit another first when he became the first rookie to win the All-Star Race, then dubbed The Winston. Sitting fourth with four laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. chased down then-leader Dale Jarrett, made the pass and left the field in his dust.
2001 Pepsi 400 – Daytona International Speedway
In what was arguably one of the more feel-good stories to come out of the 2001 season, Earnhardt Jr.’s trip to Victory Lane at Daytona less than six months after the superspeedway claimed his father’s life was one that brought emotions from every person watching.
2014 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 – Martinsville Speedway
For Earnhardt Jr., it was a childhood dream to win a grandfather clock of his own from Martinsville Speedway, and in 2014, after 29 failed attempts, it finally happened. While notching the win he had wanted for so many years was special, the victory held an even larger significance because of how important the 0.533-mile oval is to Hendrick Motorsports.
A decade earlier, the organization suffered a devastating team plane crash that killed all 10 people on board, including owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky. The milestone had fallen that weekend, making the win even more emotional. In fact, the celebration on stage in Victory Lane was so boisterous, someone had to hold on to the grandfather clock as it bounced along with the team members jumping up and down.
While Earnhardt also said on Friday that he’s “not in a hurry” to sit down and talk about this future with Hendrick Motorsports, he did say “we need to go ahead and start heading in that direction,” which is a clear indicator that he’s not quite ready to hang up his helmet just yet.
But when that time comes, it’s clear he’ll walk away with plenty of memories throughout his tenure in NASCAR.
“I would have never thought it would have been as good as it has been or as fun as it has been along the way,” he explained. “As you get older you start to understand how you prioritize the things that are most important to you about the sport.”
“The camaraderie and the friendships that I’ve made kind of started down the list and as I’ve gotten older that has crept up the list and if it’s not number one, I don’t know what is. All the people in the garage, the industry, the press, the friends that you make.
“That probably is what you will miss the most once you are done driving is the people. You are going to miss being around all these folks.”