Dale Earnhardt Jr. Opens Up On The Loss Of His Father And Dale Sr.’s Leadership: “I Had This Odd, Strange Feeling Of Being Freed”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR
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February 18th, 2001 was a dark day in NASCAR history.

It was the day Dale Earnhardt Sr. tragically passed away after being killed on impact during the final lap at the Daytona 500.

And his son, Hall of Fame driver and now-broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr., recently opened up about how the death of his father really affected him in many different ways.

He sat down with longtime Charlotte Observer writer Scott Fowler for an episode of the Sports Legends of the Carolinas podcast, where he opened up about the true impact that he felt dealing with the tragic loss of his father.

Dale Jr. noted that his dad always told him how proud he was, but he’d also let him know when he didn’t quite fulfill his potential as a driver.

Jr. says he usually agreed, but he didn’t realize back then what level his work ethic really needed to be at to compete in the Cup Series races:

“I didn’t realize the work ethic needed to be as great as I could possibly be. And so I got partnered up with Budweiser, which, had dad lived, he would’ve seen.

He would’ve probably encouraged me, successfully, to be better at applying myself. But when he passed away, there were a lot of emotions that came with that.”

He added that, of course, he went through all the typical emotions that come along with greif, like very deep sadness, but he also said he felt a really odd and strange sense of freedom:

“One of the emotions, which was uncontrollable, I felt guilty about it, but it was uncontrollable, like I didn’t get to choose how I felt. When something like that happens in your life, you don’t choose the emotions you’re having, they’re happening.

And I had all the traditional ones that you might imagine, terrible, terrible sadness and just dark, dark depression. But I had this odd, odd strange feeling of being freed from some limitation. Or some sort of mental binding.

It was scary because now I was… I was able to make my own choices in life, but dad was always a ceiling to protect me.”

Jr. said that when his dad was alive, he always had a protector and someone he had to answer to. Without him around, he felt like he could really do whatever he wanted when he wanted with no sense of accountability.

For Dale Jr., who used to be a very well-known bachelor and liked to party hard, it was a pretty dangerous feeling in most aspects:

“He was this sort of protective Ozone layer. And that was gone, and now I had this feeling of some sort of freedom, that was very dangerous, you know.

And scary, like, where’s my leader, you know? Where’s my leader? My leadership’s gone. I can walk outside and drive down the driveway and go anywhere in the world I wanna go. I can go choose whatever it is I wanna do right now in this very minute, I can just do it.

I don’t have to tell dad that’s where I’m headed, I don’t have to tell him I’ll be back later. I don’t have to tell anyone anything.”

He said it wasn’t a blessing at all, though the word “freedom” often has a very positive connotation:

“There’s no one to tell. And so that was not much… it wasn’t a blessing. And it was really scary.”

It’s no secret that the father and son had a pretty complex relationship, and it’s hard to imagine all the complex emotions Jr. went through in dealing with this tragic loss.

He was just 26 years old when his father passed, and now has two young daughters of his own, Isla and Nicole.

Dale Jr. is now a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside his father, and has become a fan-favorite it the broadcast boost during his work with NBC

It’s a really interesting conversation, and definitely a new perspective from Dale Jr. on this topic that I’ve never heard before.

You can watch that part of the interview here:

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock