It’s already been quite a season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR’s most popular driver won the season-opening Daytona 500, and he heads into Sunday’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway as the Sprint Cup points leader.
On Friday night, Earnhardt made it to victory lane as an owner, when his No. 9 JR Motorsports car driven by 18-year-old Chase Elliott — the son of legendary racer Bill Elliott — won the Nationwide O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.
Chase Elliott’s first win came 16 years to the day after Earnhardt won his first Nationwide (then Busch Series) race, which was also at Texas Motor Speedway in 1998.
With the NCAA Final Four being held just a few miles away in Arlington, Texas, basketball was a hot topic at TMS this week as well. Earnhardt said he’s pulling for Florida, since he had the Gators winning it all on his bracket.
On Thursday, Earnhardt posted to Twitter an old photo of himself as a junior-varsity basketball player with his team at Oak Ridge Military Academy in North Carolina — clearly showing him as the shortest player on the team.
I scored two points that year. I sat on the bench a lot. Didn’t have any skill. I only played because you got to leave campus for road games. Being able to leave, even for a day at military school, was an amazing vacation, just to leave for a few hours. After the game, you go get pizza or whatever. You didn’t have those luxuries on campus. But I had fun.
My one basket, I threw it up with my eyes closed. The only way I knew it went in was that Kelley (sister) and the other 10 or 12 people who were there were screaming when it went in. So I knew it went in, but I never saw it. Some guy was jumping at me, and I just closed my eyes and threw it up.
It was rough back then, but a lot of good memories, a lot of fun, thinking about practicing and being on a team. I hadn’t played much organized sports at that point in my life, so that was pretty fun. Plus, being able to get out of military school for a day was great, being able to see the outside world.
At (Chase Elliott’s) age, there’s no way to understand what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve done. He’ll never forget it, for sure. I wish I could tell him how to enjoy the win. He’s happy, but he’ll turn around one day and realize how precious that moment was. And you’ll think, man, I wish I would’ve just soaked it all up.
Just like me winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and winning it in 2014, that was two different people, because I knew this year when we won it that you’ve got to soak it up. You don’t know when it’ll happen again. Chase will have a lot of opportunities to win races in the future, and he’ll have a ton of time to celebrate and enjoy himself. But the first one, really enjoy it. Go watch it over and over again, whatever the hell you want to do. Just enjoy this moment and relive it as much as you can, because the rest will be fun, but they won’t be like the first one. Just don’t let it go by so fast you can’t remember it.
I think that I can help Chase out if I see him encountering a situation that’s making him uncomfortable. Our cars were side-by-side when qualifying was over, and he hopped the fence and walked toward the garage and nobody asked for his autograph. I thought to myself, I know he’s gonna win one day or another and start reeling off run after run after run and he’s gonna become the next best thing. The fans are gonna latch right on. It ain’t gonna be long until he’s gonna be swarmed with attention. And he’ll handle it well. He’s humble and very understanding of what’s happening to him. He grew up with his father as a racer, and saw how popular Bill was. I’m sure he’s been in and around situations that aren’t going to overwhelm him now.