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Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Living up to an impressive legacy

Zach Thompson breaks down the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in advance of his NFT drop in February.

2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Anyone who follows their father’s footsteps for a career is going to feel extra pressure, but when your father is the most well-known and beloved race car drivers of all time, that pressure is taken to a whole new level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t let that stop him, though, as he lived up to the legacy left to him by his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and went on to have a hall of fame career of his own.

On Jan. 21, Earnhardt Jr. was inducted into the NASCAR Racing Hall of Fame, and to celebrate, he is partnering with Autograph to release a set of four NFTs, which will be available on the DraftKings Marketplace starting Thursday, Feb. 3. The four NFTs are Dale Jr. - Heritage Card, Dale Jr. - Legacy Card, Dale Jr. - The Victory Lap and Dale Jr. - The 88 Engine. For more information on the NFTs, check out the Autograph blog.

Earnhardt was born into one of racing’s most well-known family on Oct. 10, 1974. His father wasn’t the only legendary racer in his family, though, as his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt was a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion as well. His sister Kelley Earnhardt-Miller is also very involved with his JR Motorsports racing team, which fields four full-time entries in the Xfinity Series. Earnhardt still races occasionally but has been retired as a full-time driver since 2017.

He didn’t begin his career as a race car driver until the late age of 17, but he quickly gained experience in the Street Stock division and the Late Model Stock Car Division on the North and South Carolina short tracks. He also worked during this time as a mechanic at his father’s dealership. He joined the Busch Series (now known as the Xfinity series, basically the minor leagues) full-time in 1998 and won back-to-back Busch Series championships in his first two seasons. He drove for a few races in what was then known as the Winston Cup Series (the top series) in those years as well, before moving to the Winston Cup Series full-time in 2000.

He was edged out for Rookie of the Year honors by Matt Kenseth but finished that season with two wins, three top fives, five top 10s, and two poles. He broke his father’s record for the fewest races in his career before getting a victory, winning in just his 12th start which was the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

While Earnhardt appeared to be well on his way to stardom, tragedy struck in 2001 when his father was killed in a wreck at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt Sr. crashed in the final corner of the final lap and Earnhardt Jr. finished second just 0.124 seconds behind his teammate Michael Waltrip. Earnhardt Jr. stopped at the site of his father’s wreck and was able to be there with his father at the hospital, who passed away due to a skull fracture.

Earnhardt Jr. was back on the track the following week but was involved in a crash of his own, finishing 43rd. He returned to the track at Daytona later that season and won the Pepsi 400. He also had one of the most memorable victories of his career that year in the first race following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. After winning the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at Dover, he took a victory lap displaying a giant American flag outside his window. He finished that season with three wins, nine top fives, 15 top 10s and two poles.

In 2003, he took home the first of his 15 straight NMPA Most Popular Driver awards and established himself as a true title contender. He got his first career Daytona 500 win in 2004 and won a career-high six races that season. He never finished higher than third in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, but piled up an impressive 26 career wins and 260 top 10s on the NASCAR Cup Series and added nine exhibition race wins as well.

Most of his success came following a move to Hendrick Motorsports. The move to Hendrick in 2007 meant a change in number for Earnhardt, who shifted from his trademark No. 8 car to No. 88. He had a personal history with that number as well since his paternal grandfather Ralph drove that car in 1957. He made the No. 88 car one of the most recognizable in the sport and ultimately claimed his second Daytona 500 victory in 2014.

Throughout his career, Earnhardt dealt with multiple concussions from different wrecks he was involved in. He still drove in just about every race, battling through major burns suffered in a crash at one point as well. He remained extremely well-known and very popular through the end of his full-time racing career in 2017.

Since retiring, he has remained very involved in racing through his team, JR Motorsports. He was also named the honorary starter for the 2020 Daytona 500. Since 2016, Earnhardt has also been involved in NBC’s coverage of NASCAR and owns several businesses around Charlotte, N.C. Recently, Earnhardt has also gotten into the eSports scene and is the executive director at iRacing, where he is part of the management committee.

Off the racetrack, Earnhardt started the Dale Jr. Foundation, which is dedicated to helping underprivileged individuals improve their confidence and education. He is also one of the most involved athletes of all time with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as highlighted in the memorable “My Wish” series on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

In a somewhat humorous example of his popularity, Dale Jr. innocuously tweeted out that his favorite sandwich was a combination of Hellmann’s Mayo and a banana. While some might disagree whether that’s a good sandwich or not, there’s no doubt that good came from the tweet which went viral and ended up raising almost $160,000 dollars for one of Earnhardt Jr.’s favorite charities, Blessings in a Backpack.

Earnhardt’s name was already recognizable due to his legacy, but he lived up to the high standard set by his father and had a very successful career. He remains extremely popular with and tops all NASCAR and IndyCar drivers on MVPindex’s social media power rankings. He has also appeared on Harris Interactive’s annual survey of America’s Top 10 Favorite Athletes. He remains one of the best-known racecar drivers of all time, and his NFTs will likely be extremely popular and in high demand as a result.