With the Daytona 500 only days away, the sun is close to rising on the start of yet another NASCAR season. The anticipation of hearing the roar of forty engines on the high banks of Daytona has me giddy as a schoolgirl with her first crush, as I’ve found myself hanging on every tidbit of new NASCAR news during the offseason. For millions of race fans the nation over, there is no better day than “Daytona Day”, and no greater sight than the Great American Race. However, amidst all the usual anticipation and excitement at the start of a new season, I can’t help but find myself feeling as if something is missing. For the first time in 18 years, NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, will not be racing in the 500. As a lifelong member of JR Nation, the idea of my racing hero not racing in the Daytona 500 is something that’s been hard to accept. I grew up glued to the TV set on Sunday mornings, cheering on Jr. along with millions of other fans as he wheeled his red #8 Budweiser Chevy on race tracks across America. As I got older, my love for the sport of stock car racing and my support for Dale Jr only increased. I’d argue that the bond between a NASCAR fan and their favorite driver is stronger than anything else in sports. You’re not cheering on a team or a city, you’re cheering on an individual, a person who has ups and downs and changes throughout the years, just like your average Joe. For me, watching Dale Jr. walk away from the sport was like watching a childhood superhero hang up their cape. I know that there have been thousands of tributes to the man known as Jr. in the months leading up to his retirement and many more in the months since. In this article I probably won’t be saying anything that hasn’t been said before by another member of JR Nation. I probably won’t break any new ground, or offer some exciting new take on a man that is beloved by so many. No, all that this member of JR Nation wants to do is share one last heartfelt goodbye with the hero that I’ve shared so many memories with over the years. Before the cars hit the track for another 500, before a new Daytona 500 Champion is crowned, and before I have to watch my first Daytona without Dale, I want to take one last look in the rearview, and share a final goodbye with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Some of my favorite memories as a little boy are running around the house and playing games with my three brothers. We did everything from mock shootouts as Cowboys and Indians, to G.I. Joe rescue missions, to mimicking the popular reality TV show Survivor in our backyard. However, nothing grabbed my attention quite like playing with my older brother Joe’s black #3 model car. Let me tell ya folks, there was nothing in the world that looked cooler to four-year-old me than my older brother’s collectible Dale Earnhardt car. The problem was that my older brother wouldn’t let me touch HIS cars. Dale Earnhardt was his driver, and in the mind of a little boy there is nothing in the world worse than having to share “your favorite thing” with your little brother. For me, this was a big problem. I idolized both my older brothers, and if there was something that they considered “cool”, then by golly I wanted in on it. The fact that I couldn’t race around the floors of our home as Dale Earnhardt was a big issue for little Thomas, and one that I had to fix. I was ecstatic then, when Joe told me that while I couldn’t root for his driver and play with his car, I could start pulling for his driver’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Being the good little brother that I was, this compromise sounded more than fair to me, and I began to dedicate myself to all things Dale Jr. From that moment on, it was Dale Jr everything. Dale Jr model cars, Dale Jr birthday cakes, Dale Jr t-shirts. Heck, when my older brother Joe figured out that his electric motorcycle was the slowest of the three we had, he even convinced me to swap with him telling me that his was red like Jr’s car. The fact that I lost every motorcycle race ever from that point on didn’t matter to me, because in my mind I looked just like Dale Jr. as I raced toward the finish line on my red motorcycle.
A major turning point in my Dale Jr. fandom occurred in 2004, the year that Dale Jr. won his first Daytona 500. I was seven and up until that point, I really didn’t have a reason for pulling for Dale Jr. other than that was what my older brother told me to do. I thought his car looked cool and loved anything with a number 8 on it, but I still didn’t really watch every race religiously and know much about Dale Earnhardt Jr. the man. That all changed when Dale Jr. won the 500. Even though I was still a little boy, I knew that Daytona was somehow different than every other race, that it meant more for a driver to win than anything else. When my brothers and I pretended to race each other in our basement and front yard, we were racing to win the Daytona 500. And why wouldn’t we? That was what you were supposed to do, that was the race you wanted to win. The fact that my guy, the guy who I drove a little red motorcycle for, somehow won the biggest race of them all, was enough to send little Thomas over the moon. I wasn’t just cheering for Dale Earnhardt Jr. the racecar driver anymore; I was cheering for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Daytona 500 Champion. From that moment on, I was a full on diehard Dale Jr. fan.
If the 2004 Daytona 500 was the race that molded me into a diehard Dale Jr. fan, it was the 2004 NASCAR season that made me fall in love with the sport as a whole. From that moment on, my Sunday routine consisted of going to morning church with my family, and racing through the front door when we got back home to flip on the TV and watch the NASCAR race. I can’t explain why, but something about stock car racing was absolutely intoxicating for me. It might have been due to all of the time spent playing with race cars with my brothers, or the fact that the colorful cars and superhero drivers were memorizing to a little kid. I think part of my fascination with NASCAR came from the fact that it had turned into “my thing”. All three of my brothers played hockey growing up, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the least athletic of my brothers growing up. I loved playing football with them in the front yard and throwing the baseball with my older brothers or my dad, but I was far from a sports superstar. For me, the fact that my driver was having a career year in 2004 was a point of pride. I may have gotten clobbered in garage hockey shootout by my brothers, but did their favorite driver just win the Bristol Night Race? I didn’t think so! I began to count Jr.’s successes as my own, and when that #8 car pulled into victory lane, it was as if we had won the race together, just Jr. and me. Dale Jr. would go on to win six times in 2004, and just barely miss out on winning his first Cup Championship. For 8-year-old Thomas, life could not get any better.
In 2007, I was blessed with the chance to attend my first ever NASCAR race, the Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I was on cloud nine the entire trip, and still count the memory as one of my childhood favorites. My family traveled down to Indiana in a rental RV, and camped out right in front of the racetrack in a sea of thousands of other diehard racing fans. I can’t even begin to relate how excited I was to see my racing hero in person, and I still vividly remember the sight of Jr’s red Chevy speeding down the front straightaway of the historic IMS. Jr. was competitive from the very start of the race, rocketing to the front early and leading the field for 33 laps. While a blown engine late in the race relegated Dale to a 34th place finish, I still look back at that day as fondly as any Earnhardt win. I had gotten to see Dale Jr. race in person, and from that moment on I made it a point to get to as many races as possible.
The 2007 Brickyard 400 spawned a family tradition that would continue for years, our annual summer NASCAR RV trip. We traveled to the Brickyard as a family again in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. In 2010 we traveled to Pennsylvania for the Pocono race, and in 2015 we traveled to the Cup Race in Kentucky. Each trip was filled with scrapbook worthy moments, from campground cookouts to race day corn hole tournaments. If you offered me a trip around the world, or another chance to load my parents, brothers, and best friends into an RV for a NASCAR race, I would choose the RV trip every time. Every race was another opportunity to cheer on Dale Jr, another chance to experience the thrill that only NASCAR racing can bring. I’ve been to many more amazing races since our last family RV trip to a race in 2015, but the memories of these family trips will always be among my favorite racing memories. I think that’s another reason why being a fan of Dale Jr. means so much to me. For me, the connection between these family memories and Dale Jr. is so strong. The reason we went to these races was to cheer on Dale Jr, to be a part of JR Nation. Without Dale Jr, there would have been no family RV trips to racetracks across the country, no memories of sitting around a campfire outside the race track until the early hours of the morning. As with all little kids, my brothers and I have grown up. Adam is married. Joe is in an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Nick and I are students in college. It’s harder and harder to get the entire crew back together again with how busy life has become. This past year, all four brothers, along with our Dad, attended the 2017 NASCAR all-star race as part of our guys’ bachelor party weekend. Adam was getting married the following week, and the race gave us one last chance to spend time together before the first of the brothers got hitched. Once again, as silly as it may sound, that weekend wouldn’t have been possible without Dale Jr. It was the announcement of his retirement from NASCAR that spurred our decision to attend the race and plan a NASCAR bachelor party weekend. So many of my favorite family memories are centered around racing, spending time cheering on Dale Jr. It really is hard to explain, but somewhere along the way Dale became less of a racecar driver and more of a family member. He’s been involved in so many family memories, even if he doesn’t know it. And for that I thank him.
In 2016, my family lost a very special person unexpectedly. Garrett was my older brother Joe’s best friend, my extra brother, and a proud member of our NASCAR RV trip crew. He’d attended countless races with us across the country, and although he was a Gordon fan, he’d always celebrate alongside me whenever Dale Jr. took the lead at the race track. His tragic passing left a whole in all of our hearts that will never be fully healed. In the months after his passing though, I found comfort in watching Dale Jr. on the racetrack, just as we had done together so many times before. Every race I’ve attended since Garrett’s passing has served as a little memorial to one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. Racing provided us with an opportunity to bond as brothers, and I thank the good Lord for drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. who gave us so many amazing memories during our time together.
I could ramble on and on describing the jubilation I felt when Dale Jr. won his second Daytona 500 in 2014, or the tears that streamed down my face when he broke a four-year winless streak at Michigan in 2012. But those tails have been told a thousand times by members of JR Nation across the country. I wanted my final goodbye to Jr. to be personal, something specific to this small corner of JR Nation. This past November, I attended Jr.’s final race in Miami with one of my best friends. As amazing as the experience was, I still feel as if I didn’t truly say goodbye to Dale when I was at the racetrack. Over the offseason, I couldn’t help but feel that once February rolled around Jr. would be on the race track, ready to compete like he always has. It’s taken the start of Daytona speed weeks and the sight of the #88 car with a new driver behind the wheel for me to truly realize that this will be the start of a Daytona without Dale. It’s emotional, I tear up just thinking about it, but I’m so thankful for all the memories that the driver behind the wheel of the #8 and #88 car gave to this kid from Wisconsin. Dale Jr. will always be a hero of mine, and I respect the way he has carried himself off the track as much as I do his driving abilities. The man is humble, and as real as sports superstars get. Fans can sense how genuine he is just by watching his many sit down interviews over the course of his career. Dale may not have won the most races, or captured that elusive cup series championship, but he’ll always be the greatest in my book. Thanks for all the memories Jr., it’s been an amazing ride. God bless you buddy! Forever and always, Raise Hell, Praise Dale!
Yours Truly, Thomas Goris