Last week my attention was firmly focused in Charlotte, NC for the sixth class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Joe Weatherly, Rex White, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, and Bill Elliott comprise the 2015 Class ushered into the Hall with much fanfare.
All the names on the list were deserving of the honor. As a writer I was familiar with their stories but had only seen one driver race with my own eyes – Elliott.
I knew Elliott was not only a Sprint Cup Champion (1988), winner of the Winston Million (1985), two time Daytona 500 Champion (1985, 1987), Brickyard 400 winner (2002), and three time Southern 500 winner (1985, 1988, 1994), but he was also voted Most Popular Driver an incredible 16 times.
Let’s put that into perspective.
In this era of NASCAR Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the Most Popular Driver award 12 times. He still has a ways to go to equal Elliott and only time will tell if Earnhardt Jr. will ever surpass Elliott in wins in this category.
Earnhardt Jr. is obviously popular among his fans, the “Junior Nation” and certainly in the NASCAR Nation. His celebrity goes beyond the sport and leaks over into “mainstream” pop culture.
And, as a driver, Earnhardt Jr. has also shown brilliance.
Earnhardt Jr. is a two-time back-to-back NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series Champion (1998, 1999). He is also a two-time Daytona 500 Champion (2004, 2014).
At 23 all-time wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to date, Earnhardt Jr. falls short of the 44 wins that Elliott earned during his time.
But Earnhardt Jr. isn’t retiring any time soon and seems to be experiencing a second burst of excellence on track in these recent years, for example, he earned four wins in 2014.
Earnhardt Jr. is also making a great name for himself as a team owner. His driver earned the NASCAR Nationwide Series Championship in 2014. The driver? Elliott’s son, Chase Elliott.
Of course, Earnhardt Jr.’s father, Dale Earnhardt, is an icon in the sport. Earnhardt was inducted as part of the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His place in NASCAR is undeniable.
But if Earnhardt Jr. never wins a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, never wins another race again, will he ever make it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame?
Try as I might, I don’t quite understand the criteria to get into the Hall.
What I do know is that Earnhardt Jr. is a phenomenon in this sport. His popularity transcends the sport. His fans are devoted, loyal, and fierce.
And Earnhardt Jr. does all he can to lift NASCAR to the light. He is a true ambassador of the sport.
So, has Earnhardt Jr. done enough to date to one day warrant a space in the NASCAR Hall of Fame one day in the future?
What do you think?