CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement press conference was startling in its transparency. Earnhardt was humble, candid, open and just plain real in ways so many drivers are not these days.
Sitting onstage with his boss, Hendrick Motorsports owner and founder Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt fielded every question thoughtfully during the hour-long press conference.
But the most striking part of the event came with the last question, when Earnhardt was asked what his late father would have thought had he been there on this day.
The elder Earnhardt, one of NASCAR greatest legends, perished in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 just as Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. were about to finish 1-2 in cars owned by Earnhardt.
“I’ve always let other people tell me what they think Dad would think in a certain situation,” Earnhardt said. “I never would assume that he was proud of me when he was alive. I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake after he passed.
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“I just never felt like I was worthy of assuming that of him. And I always was open to hearing from people that know him really well, what they think he would think. I’ve talked to some people in the past 24 hours that know him pretty well, and they’re pretty confident that he would be very proud.”
And then, Earnhardt added, “He wouldn’t tell me to my face, but he’d probably tell Rick or anyone else that would listen here today that he was very proud of me and then I’d have to go hear it from Rick.”
At that point, Hendrick jumped into the conversation.
Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick are exceptionally close and both have lived through the loss of loved ones: Earnhardt Jr. lost his father in 2001 and in ’04, Hendrick lost his only son, Ricky, his brother John and eight other friends and family members in an airplane crash near Martinsville, Va.
“I knew your daddy pretty well,” Hendrick said. “I knew him real well. He would be proud of the man that you are and what you’ve done for so many, all the charities and all the good will that you’ve done. He would be — and is — very, very proud of you.”
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