Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. (born October 10, 1974 in Kannapolis, North Carolina) "Junior" or "Little E" as he is sometimes called, is the son of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. He currently drives the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Earnhardt Jr. began his professional driving career at the age of 17, competing in the Street Stock division at Concord (N.C.) Motorsport Park. His first race car was a 1978 Monte Carlo that he co-owned with older brother Kerry. Within two seasons, the young Earnhardt had honed his driving abilities to the point of joining the Late Model Stock Car division. There, he developed an in-depth knowledge of chassis setup and car preparation, while racing against Kerry and their sister Kelley. Earnhardt Jr. won consecutive NASCAR Busch Series Championships in 1998 & 1999. With his father's guidance and his own experience on the short tracks throughout the Carolinas, he was ready to take a bold step forward.
Earnhardt Jr. was tapped to compete for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in 2000. Matt Kenseth outran Junior in the Daytona 500, and never let up in his run to the Rookie title. Earnhardt put up a valiant effort, scoring wins at Texas and Richmond, as well as becoming the first rookie to win the All-Star exhibition race, but it was Kenseth who ultimately scored a 42-point victory in the rookie race.
Junior did have a part in recreating one Winston Cup milestone in 2000 when he competed with his father and brother Kerry in the Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway. That occasion was only the second time that a father had raced against two sons. Lee, Richard and Maurice Petty had previously accomplished the feat.
In 2001 Earnhardt Jr. came into the season assuming he would face a sophomore slump, but the year proved to be one of the most tumultuous and memorable seasons the young driver has experienced.
The major event of the season occurred in the final corner of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500--Junior's father crashed. As Junior finished second, his father died on impact with the wall. Junior raced at Rockingham the following weekend, but crashed on the first lap and finished in 43rd-place. Eanrhardt rebounded and scored victories at Dover and Talladega, as well as an emotional win in the return to Daytona, finishing eighth in points for the year.
The Talladega victory earned Junior a Winston No Bull 5 $1 million bonus. This season of emotion produced nine top-fives and 15 top-10 finishes, as well as two Bud Poles.
In 2002, Junior had a roller-coaster season. He struggled after enduring a concussion at Fontana in April -- an injury he did not admit to until mid-September. In the three races following Fontana, Earnhardt Jr. finished no better than 30th. Still, Junior rallied to score two more wins at Talladega, a pair of Bud Pole Awards and an 11th-place finish in the standings.
2003 Saw Earnhardt Jr. become a true title contender. He scored a record-breaking 4th consectuive win at Talladega, but people were beginning to say that Earnhardt could only win on the plate tracks, as his last win on a non plate track had come at Dover in 2001. He put that talk to rest as he scored the victory at Phoenix in October, recording a career-best 3rd place effort in the standings. He would also take home the NMPA Most Popular Driver award for the first time in his career.
In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, 6 years to the day after his father won his only title in the "Great American Race." In July, during on off-weekend from NASCAR, Dale Jr. crashed the Corvette he was testing for an American LeMans Series race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. The car burst into flames with Earnhardt still inside. He suffered second and third degree burns on his neck, chin, and legs. The burns prevented him from finishing two races where he was replaced by Martin Truex, Jr. (driver for Chance 2 Motorsports, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt) and his DEI team mate (John Andretti) in the middle of the races. In the fall, Junior became the first driver to sweep a weekend at Bristol by winning both the Busch race and Cup race in the same weekend.
He was able to qualify for the NASCAR ten-race playoff, and his fifth Nextel Cup win of the season (a career high) was also his fifth win at Talladega. However, he was penalized 25 points for use of an obscenity during the television broadcast, in violation of a NASCAR rule prohibiting participants from using obscene language. That incident, combined with two consecutive DNF's in the playoffs, eventually dropped him out of the running, and he finished fifth in the 2004 Nextel Cup chase despite a career-high 6 wins at Daytona, Atlanta, Richmond, Bristol, Talladega and Phoenix. He also picked up his 2nd consecutive Most Popular Driver Award.
Earnhardt as an owner was more proficient. Truex went on a charge late in the 2004 Busch Series season, and clinched the series championship at Darlington, with a strong finish, making Earnhardt the winner of both a driver's championship (1998 and 1999) and an owner's championship (2004) in the NASCAR Busch series. He would repeat the feat in 2005 with 6 wins and another championship. Earnhardt also won his fair share of races as a driver/owner, winning 6 Busch races in only 8 starts from 2002 to 2004.
At the close of the 2004 season it was revealed that Tony Eury, Sr. would be promoted to the team manager position for the DEI corporation, while Tony Eury, Jr. became the crew chief for the DEI #15 driven by Michael Waltrip for the 2005 season. Peter Rondeau, a Chance 2 employee who also helped Earnhardt win the Busch Series race at Bristol in August, became the crew chief for Earnhardt in 2005. Rondeau served as Earnhardt's crew chief until the Coca Cola 600 weekend when he was replaced with DEI chief engineer Steve Hmiel, who helped Jr. score his lone win of 2005 at Chicagoland in July. Earnhardt was eliminated from any possible competition for the NEXTEL Cup championship after suffering an engine failure at the California Speedway. Earnhardt was reunited with cousin Tony Eury, Jr after the fall Richmond weekend, and results improved immediately. Earnhardt statistically had his worst season in 2005, with only 1 win and a 19th place points effort. For the 3rd straight year, Earnhardt took home the NMPA Most Popular Driver Award.
Dale Jr.'s name has helped his media presence. He has expressed interest in pursuing an acting career. Dale Jr. has appeared in print advertisements for Drakkar Noir Cologne, one of the sponsors of his race car, and in the video for Sheryl Crow's song "Steve McQueen", which pays tribute to the late film star famous for his car chase scenes. He was also featured in several commercials for Wrangler jeans, one of which used the aforementioned song as its background music. Probably not coincidentally, Wrangler was the initial sponsor of his father's #3 Chevrolet from 1980 until 1987. Earnhardt has also appeared in advertisements for Budweiser, NAPA, Domino's Pizza and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.