Earnhardt Jr. Reaches Milestone Start
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on October 11, 2013 | 6:45 P.M. EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr. through the years in Victory Lane. (Photo: ISC Archives/Getty Images)
CONCORD, N.C. - It’s only a number. It’s nothing special, so says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will make his 500th career NASCAR Sprint Cup start Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I just hope I’m around for least 250 or 500 more,’’ Earnhardt said. “I’ve really been blessed to have the opportunity to do what I do. It’s truly been a dream career for me, and I never took it for granted that I would be driving racecars all my life.’’
While Earnhardt downplays the accomplishment, it is viewed as meaningful by many who have seen Earnhardt grow from the young driver with so much potential to one who thrilled many with his wins and shared his grief with his father’s death.
As Earnhardt prepares for his 500th career Cup starts, here’s a look at some of his memorable starts.
Start No. 1 - Coca-Cola 600 (May 30, 1999). After qualifying eighth for his first Cup race, Earnhardt admitted: “I ain’t never been that nervous in my life. I wasn’t really worried about my ability to run a fast lap, I just knew that there were a lot more people paying attention than normal.’’ Earnhardt finishes 16th on the same day that car owner Jack Roush announced that Matt Kenseth, then the Busch Series points leader, would drive five Cup races for him that season and a full schedule in 2000.
Start No. 4 - Richmond (Sept. 11, 1999) - Finishes 10th for his first career Cup top-10 result.
Start No. 12 - Texas (April 2, 2000) - Scores his first career Cup win. His father beat him to Victory Lane, pulling him out of the car and bearhugging him. “He told me he loved me,’’ Earnhardt said of what his father told him.
Start No. 39 - Homestead (Nov. 20, 2000) - Finishes 20th in season finale, ending his rookie season with 21 consecutive finishes outside the top 10 but two wins in points races and a victory in the All-Star race.
Start No. 40 - Daytona 500 (Feb. 18, 2001) - Finishes second in the race that claims his father’s life in last-lap crash.
Start No. 41 - Rockingham (Feb. 25, 2001) - After emotional week, he wrecks on first lap and finishes last. “I miss my father,’’ Earnhardt said earlier in the weekend.
Start No. 56 - Daytona (July 7, 2001) - In Cup’s first race at Daytona since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death, Earnhardt prevails with an emotional victory.
Start No. 66 - Dover (Sept. 23, 2001) - Earnhardt scores another emotional victory in NASCAR’s first race since the Sept. 11 attacks. The memorable image from that race is Earnhardt driving an Alan Kulwicki-style victory lap with a large American Flag. Said NBC broadcaster Benny Parsons: “For these race fans, it doesn’t get much better than this. An Earnhardt carrying the American Flag ... after winning.’’
Start No. 119 - Talladega (April 6, 2003) - Earnhardt becomes the first driver to win four consecutive races at this track. It wasn’t easy. He started at the back after an engine change before the event and then his car was damaged in a 27-car incident.
Start No. 148 - Daytona 500 (Feb. 15, 2004) - Earnhardt thrills his fans by winning the sport’s biggest race. “This is more important to me than anything,’’ he said more than an hour after his triumph.
Start No. 176 - Talladega (Oct. 3, 2004) - Earnhardt wins to take the points lead but it doesn’t last. Asked in Victory Lane what it meant to win Talladega a fifth time, Earnhardt tells NBC “it don’t mean (expletive) right now.’’ NASCAR docks Earnhardt 25 points and fines him $10,000 for his language, dropping him out of the points lead.
Start No. 229 - Richmond (May 6, 2006) - He snaps a 27-race winless streak to score the victory. “Glad to be back in Victory Lane,’’ Earnhardt said.
Start No. 270 - Michigan (June 17, 2007) - He finishes fifth in the first race since announcing that he’ll leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. after the season and drive for Hendrick Motorsports.
Start No. 292 - Daytona 500 (Feb. 17, 2008) - He places eighth in his first points race for Hendrick Motorsports. The race comes after his stirring debut for Hendrick when he won the non-points Budweiser Shootout earlier in Speedweeks.
Start No. 306 - Michigan (June 15, 2008) - Scores his first points win at Hendrick Motrsports, claiming the victory on Father’s Day. “It means a lot to do well on Father’s Day,’’ he said. “It’s a special day for my family.’’
Start No. 450 - Michigan (June 17, 2012) - Scores first victory since 2008 triumph at Michigan, ending 143-race winless drought. “I was just thinking, man, those laps could not go by fast enough,’’ Earnhardt said.
Start No. 465 - Talladega (Oct. 7, 2012) - Finishes 20th after being collected in a multi-car crash on the last lap. Incident, along with a crash in a tire test session about six weeks earlier, leads to concussion that forces him to miss next two Chase races.
Start No. 470 - Daytona 500 - (Feb. 24, 2013) - Places second in the season-opening race. It would mark the first of five consecutive top-10 finishes to open the season.