Salute to Dale. Jr: 1998 Busch Grand National Series Champion

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Seth and Sutton Sharp

November 15, 2017

While his first race in the A.C. Delco Chevrolet didn’t go as planned, the race was ironically a sign of things to come for Dale Earnhardt Jr. After flying through the air at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr’s career got off to a flying start.

The incident at Daytona left Earnhardt Jr. with a disappointing 37th place finish, which he followed up with a 16th the following week at Rockingham.

From there, Earnhardt Jr. took flight, rattling off six straight top-10 finishes. The span of great finishes included one at Texas, where he notched his first career Busch Grand National Series win.

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Looking back at how his career turned out, it’s funny to think that restrictor plate races didn’t bring the best luck for Earnhardt Jr. in his first full season. He backed up his flip at Daytona with a 32nd place finish at Talladega. The hard luck carried over the next few weeks as Earnhardt Jr. finished 28th and 30th in consecutive weeks.

When the Series arrived at Dover at the end of May, Earnhardt turned on the heat and never looked back. He came in to the race third in points, 189 points behind Mike McLaughlin. He started the race 16th and quickly made his way through the field, taking the lead on lap-73 from Bobby Hillin Jr.

It looked like Earnhardt Jr’s string of bad luck was about to continue mid-way through the race. As he attempted to bring his No. 3 car in for a green flag pit-stop, he lost control of the car, spinning and missing the pit-road barrier by inches. Darrell Waltrip, calling the race from the TNN booth, noted on the broadcast that he was the seventh or eighth driver on the day that missed the entrance.

The race stayed green as Earnhardt made his way back around the track and brought his car in for service. Crew-chief Tony Eury Sr. tried to calm Earnhardt Jr. down on the radio, telling his driver to shrug it off and that they would be back up front soon.

The spin shuffled Earnhardt Jr. out of the lead but it wasn’t long before his strong car made it back out front. He led the final 60 laps on his way to his second career victory.

TNN’s Matt Yocum interviewed Eury on pit-road after their victory. “That kid is great. The car was great. We’ve got into some bad luck over the past few weeks. The kid is doing a great job. He wants to win so bad. We just have to keep him calm and keep him out of trouble.”

Eury also noted that the car that Earnhardt Jr. was driving was built around 1991 and driven by Neil Bonnett in a race at Atlanta.

As Earnhardt Jr. climbed from his car in Victory Lane, he emphatically sprayed soda over his crew before letting out a “Woo!” while staring into the camera.

Before he could be interviewed by Glenn Jarrett, his proud Dad appeared in Victory Lane with an electric smile, giving his son a big hug and congratulating him on the win. While talking to Jarrett, Earnhardt Jr. noted that his Dad reminded him to thank all of his sponsors on TV.

After thanking his sponsors, Earnhardt Jr. thanked his crew for bailing him out with a pair of 18 second pit-stops. “I knew we had a fast car, we just had to be calm.”
Earnhardt Jr. took the momentum from his victory at Dover and took flight. Over the next eight races, he notched three wins, finished inside the top-10 seven times and took control of the points lead.

He never looked back, holding the points lead the rest of the season until clinching the championship during the season finale at Homestead.

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Before the race at Homestead, his Dad spent the start of the race in the booth with Dr. Jerry Punch. Again, Earnhardt’s smile could be seen for miles as he told Punch that he was a “proud papa”.

“You do a lot a things in racing and been involved with many things like with my Dad and family. It was fun to go out and win races but to see your son do it? It really hits home. It felt good to see him win races. I know the team has really helped him be himself. I’m just so proud of that boy of mine.”

Earnhardt continued and noted that his father Ralph would be just as proud. “I know that my Dad would be so proud of him. He’d be so proud of the way things went for him. It’s just a great day for me, as a Dad. I know how they feel when they see their son go out there and do something for the first time. It’s pretty awesome.”

From carrying the sport through the darkest days, to his successful Cup career, to building a team with his sister, to seeing the amazing role model that he has become, it’s safe to say that as Earnhardt Jr’s full-time career comes to a close, that his Dad is still glowing at all that his son has accomplished.

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Updated: November 15, 2017 — 11:47 pm

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