On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to his first win at Talladega in over a decade. It also tied him for the second-most wins at the superspeedway with Jeff Gordon, a living legend who is in the final season of his illustrious career.
After that triumph, Junior is behind—you guessed it—Earnhardt Sr. The Intimidator himself is the only driver to ever capture double-digit wins at the track. With his sixth now in tow, that seems like a distinct possibility for Junior.
Sunday was not only Earnhardt’s sixth win at ‘Dega, but also his 24th overall. He may not be touching his Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, but he’s nearly caught other Hall of Famers. Mike Davis of Dirty Mo Radio points out where Junior currently falls:
— Mike Davis (@MikeDavis88) May 5, 2015
So that got us thinking, is Dale Jr. reaching Hall of Fame status?
He hasn’t matched Johnson or Gordon with 10 combined championships. Earnhardt also hasn’t touched their consistency with a long lull in his success before last year. Thanks to his resurgence in the last two years, Junior is finally knocking on the door again.
Junior has long been the unquestioned face of the sport. His marketability has always remained strong as a 12-time Most Popular Driver despite the prosperity on the track not always being there. In fact, his four wins in 2014 matched his previous nine seasons at the Sprint Cup level.
But above all of that, what Junior has to deal with is living in the shadow of his father. No other driver currently on the circuit has a seven-time champion at the highest level of NASCAR.
“There’s just not many second chances,” he told reporters following the race. “I feel like if my name wasn’t Earnhardt that I wouldn’t have had the second chance. I feel like I owe my second chance to my dad, his legacy, because the way I ran from ’09 through those years till 2011 or so, I feel I didn’t deserve to be kept around or hung onto.”
Given that second chance, Junior has made the most of it. His five wins in the last two years have proved that. But his return to the top of the sport does so much for NASCAR as a whole, which makes what he did on Sunday even more special.
“I love when we go to Victory Lane because I feel like I add to his legacy [at Talladega],” he said later. “All I ever want to do is make him proud. I feel like when we win at those tracks where he was successful, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
With pressure from fans, sponsors, his team and—above all else—the legacy his dad built, Junior has thrived.
Not all drivers get in due to their success, but rather the impact they leave on the sport. Earnhardt has not only won 24 races—with more seemingly on the way—but he’s done so while helping grow NASCAR exponentially. That was no more evident than Sunday at ‘Dega with nearly the entire grandstand cheering wildly after his victory.
So does Junior deserve to get in for his success or what he’s brought to the sport as a whole? The simple answer here is yes—to both. Above all else, joining his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame would certainly make him proud.
Follow Chicken Bone Alley on Twitter.