Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, 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. 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.
Before his Winston Cup rookie season in 2000, many thought Earnhardt Jr. was the front-runner for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award. It didn't pan out that way, as frequent challenger Matt Kenseth outran Junior in the Daytona 500, and never let up in his run to the title. Kenseth ultimately scored a 42-point victory in the rookie race.
Earnhardt's close relationship with his cousin, car chief Tony Eury Jr., crew chief Tony Eury and his crew, was both a blessing and a curse. The continuation of his Busch Series success into Winston Cup created an atmosphere that was too distracting and disruptive for the operation's success to continue.
Junior did have a part in recreating one Winston Cup milestone in 2000 when he competed with his father and brother 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.
Earnhardt Jr. came into the 2001 season thinking the biggest obstacle he would face would be a sophomore slump. Instead, he endured the loss of the his father in the Daytona 500 and went on to establish himself as one of the sport's superstars.
Earnhardt finished second in the Daytona 500, but faltered with a first-lap crash and 43rd-place finish the next weekend at Rockingham. He didn't stay down for long, though.
Junior scored three emotional victories and came back to finish eighth in points. The first win came when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series returned to Daytona for the Pepsi 400. The second came at Dover, Delaware, in the first race after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the third was in the EA Sports 500 at Talladega -- the site of his father's final victory. That Talladega victory earned Junior a Winston No Bull 5 $1 million bonus. The 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 didn't 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 final standings.
In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, 6 years to the day after his father won his only "Super Bowl Of Motorsports."