Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s greatest accomplishments
The 2017 NASCAR season marks the 18th full-time season for driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, it will also be his last, as Earnhardt announced he will retire at the end of the year.
It's hard to believe the Kannapolis, N.C. native has been in the sport that long. As a fresh-faced 21-year-old who popped up in the Busch Series for one race in 1996 (he finished seventh), you knew he was a star on the rise. Not just because he was the son of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt but because he had talent.
Before you knew it, he was winning Busch Series titles and ascending to the Sprint Cup level. He has amassed 26 career Cup wins, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500s.
He's also won a Daytona 500 qualifying race four times, took the checkered flag twice in the Sprint Unlimited and won the All-Star Race as a rookie. On top of all that, he's qualified for the Chase eight times (2004, 2006, 2008, 2011-2015) and has been NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the past 14 years in a row.
We take a look at some of Dale Jr.'s top accomplishments in his jam-packed career.
1 Winning two Xfinity titles
Before Junior hit it big on the Sprint Cup circuit, he was proving his talents in the Xfinity Series (or Busch Series back then). In 1998, his first full season, he won seven races and finished in the top five 16 times in 31 races. He led 1,615 of 6,055 laps to capture his first NASCAR title.
In 1999, he nearly topped that performance for his second straight title. Earnhardt won six races and finished in the top 10 18 times. Entering the 2017 season, he had 24 wins, 67 top-fives and 90 top-10s in NASCAR's Triple-A series.
2 First Sprint Cup win
After running five races in 1999, Dale Jr. picked up his first-ever Sprint Cup win in the seventh race of the 2000 season. He led the most laps (106) to take the checkered flag in the 2000 DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. That including leading the final 53 laps.
His dad, who finished seventh that day, was there in victory lane for an emotional celebration. Junior won two races as a rookie, the start of seven straight seasons where he had at least one win.
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3 One more to celebrate
In addition to those two wins in 2000, he also became the first rookie to win the NASCAR All-Star race, then called The Winston, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He won $500,000 for winning the 70-lap race, setting off another emotional celebration between he and his father.
4 Two wins in Daytona 500
Dale Jr. has two Daytona 500 wins, his first in 2004 and the second 10 years later. The 2004 win was dramatic because it was his first and it came just three years after his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500. And it started what would be his best season yet as far as wins are concerned.
It was one of six wins in 2004. He also had 16 top-fives, the most he's ever had until he tied that mark in 2015. He led the first 29 laps as the pole sitter at Daytona and led the final 20 in the 2004 race.
The 2014 win was an endurance race of sorts as rain prolonged the finish late into the night. Earnhardt led the final 18 laps, the most any driver led during the event, to take home the checkered flag and set off a wild celebration with his fans.
5 Success at Talladega
Two tracks where Junior has had his most success in Sprint Cup are Daytona (four wins) and Talladega (six). From the second race in 2001 until the first race of 2003, they might as well have called it Earnhardt-ega. He won four straight races at the track, leading a whopping 290 laps.
The dramatics began in 2001 when he passed Bobby Labonte and led the final lap for the win. That win came the same season his father died at Daytona and was weeks after 9-11. In 2002, he had his most dominating wins, leading the final 24 in the spring race and was ahead of the pack in the final 39 laps of the fall race. He led 34 laps in 2003, but it was the final two, where he swapped the lead with Matt Kenseth before holding on to the win, that was most dramatic.
He led 67 laps in 2015 to win for the sixth time at Talladega, tying him for second on the all-time list. His father is the all-time wins leader at Talladega with 10.
6 First victory as car owner
JR Motorsports began in 2005 when Mark McFarland finished 20th at Homestead in the final race of the then-Busch Series. But that was the start of something special.
The team ran 118 Nationwide Series races before Ron Fellows — of all the drivers who have raced for JR Motorsports — took the checkered flag at Montreal on Aug. 2, 2008 in the NAPA Auto Parts 200. Fellows took the lead from Jacques Villeneuve and led the final seven laps for the win. It was the first race Fellows ran for JR Motorsports. The funny thing is Junior wasn't even there to celebrate. He was at Pocono prepping for the next day's Sprint Cup race.
The team, which is owned by Dale Jr. and run by his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has won 32 races and finished in the top five 212 times. It won the Nationwide Series championship with Chase Elliott in 2014 and finished second in 2015 and 2016.
7 Moving to Hendrick
During the 2007 season, it was apparent Dale Jr. was not happy at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team is father founded. Driving for step mother Theresa Earnhardt, it was the first season he had not won at least one race.
He became a free agent and locked up a deal with Hendrick Motorsports. It was a match made in NASCAR heaven in 2008. He had his best season since 2006 with a win, 10 top-fives and 16 top-10s. He's won nine races and finished as high as fifth in the standings in 2013.
8 Most popular driver … again
Bill Elliott was once considered the Most Popular Driver in NASCAR. He won the award each year from 1984-1988. After Darrell Waltrip won it two years in a row, Elliott won the title nine years in a row, from 1991-2000. Dale Earnhart Sr. was awarded the honor in 2001 after his death before Elliott won the honor again in 2002, his 15th year with the honor.
Then along came Junior. From 2003 until this past season, he was easily named the Most Popular Driver after each season. That's 14 years in a row, the most for any driver.
9 Successful businessman
In addition to his successful stint as a car owner, Junior also has a good business sense going for him. He opened Whiskey River, a successful uptown bar and nightclub in Uptown Charlotte in 2008. The business has since expanded to include a location at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte with other locations in the region and beyond under consideration.
10 Getting married
Earnhardt started the year with wedding bells, marrying his longtime fiancee, Amy Reimann, just a few hours before the calendar turned to 2017.
Most of the NASCAR world was fixated on the event, and there was even video of the couple's first dance.