by Julian Spivey
James Hicks wasn’t my grandfather, but he may as well have been. I knew him better than two of my grandfathers and liked him a helluva lot more than my other one. I honestly don’t know what James did for his career, he was done with that by the time I knew him. The only things I did know were he was a soldier and a survivor shot down in a plane by Nazis in World War II and he was a bootlegger, and that one may not even be true. James probably told a lot of stories that weren’t true. It helped to build a myth. He always seemed like a man’s man, even though he was old, skinny and always seemingly frail when I knew him. He could have been John Wayne for all I knew when he was younger, except for that fact he actually served.
Even though he was closer with my brothers, whom he babysat when they were little, I always had a few things in common with James. We were both fans of NASCAR, country music and Western movies. It was NASCAR where we truly bonded. If he indeed had been a bootlegger it explains his love for the sport that grew out of illegally running whiskey across the South in hotrods fast enough to outrun the local authorities. He was a Dale Earnhardt fan. That wasn’t a surprise at all. Of course, James Hicks would like a driver known as “The Intimidator,” who could shake a driver in front of him so much he’d have to think about pulling over to let him pass or else fear being wrecked. I started watching NASCAR full-time shortly after Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, though I’d caught races from time-to-time previously. My favorite driver quickly became Jeff Gordon, the best driver of that era. Gordon was the driver Earnhardt fans loved to hate. Like many fans within Earnhardt Nation, James’ allegiances on the racetrack quickly shifted to Dale’s young son Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two drivers shared a name and a passion for racecar driving, but honestly not much else. But, the name and fact he was a racecar driver was enough for James and millions of others.
Him being an Earnhardt fan and myself being a Gordon fan meant we had us a little rivalry between us. This 70-something man and a teenager poking fun at each over about car racers driving around in ovals. Around this time there was an up-and-comer in the Busch Series, kind of NASCAR’s minor leagues, named Martin Truex Jr., who competed for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chance 2 Motorsports team. Truex Jr. would win the Busch Series championship with this team in back-to-back seasons in 2004 and 2005 and looked like he’d be a future star in the Cup Series. Being talented and affiliated with Dale Jr., Truex quickly became a favorite of James’ too.
Truex Jr. would soon become Dale Jr.’s teammate at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the team Dale Sr. had created. He would win his first race in his second season in the Cup Series at Dover. But, the following years would be a struggle for both Dale Jr. and Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would soon move to Hendrick Motorsports, where he’d finish his career a decade later. He would struggle off and on during this decade, but the highlights included his second Daytona 500 victory in 2014. Truex Jr. would go to Michael Waltrip Racing where he would continue to struggle. He would only win one race at MWR and after eight full seasons in the sport’s premier series had only two wins. He had been a major disappointment and it looked like his career could potentially over.
James and I would enjoy giving each other hell over NASCAR during the brief period he lived in Arkansas, but he would eventually move back to Florida and I probably only saw him a few more times during his life. He died in either 2011 or 2012, according to my brother Jon. At that point neither of his favorite drivers had won a race in multiple seasons. I don’t even know if James kept up with NASCAR in his final years. The sport had changed so much, and many longtime fans had found it to be too much and had left it behind. Even some younger fans like myself had found it hard to adapt. I wonder what James would think of the current sport with its stage racing, 16-team playoffs, elimination rounds and a winner-take-all championship race that could see a dominant driver lose the championship to someone much less worthy?
After the 2013 season Truex Jr. would find his way to the single car team of Furniture Row Racing, which had had little success prior to him joining the team. But, they soon would be affiliated with the powerhouse of Joe Gibbs Racing and had hoped things would turn around. I’m not sure anybody knew just how much things would indeed change.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have his two best seasons in a decade in 2014 and 2015 combining for seven victories. It seemed like he was having the most fun of his career. Unfortunately, the next season concussion issues would derail it. He wouldn’t win again.
Truex Jr.’s career which seemed like it could’ve been over had gotten a rebirth at Furniture Row. He would win his third career race in 2015 and things had certainly begun to click for that team and for Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn. They would pretty much dominate the Cup Series the next two seasons. In 2016, Truex would win four races. His team dominated the mile-and-a-half tracks that frequented the NASCAR schedule. In 2017, the team was the most consistent all-season long. Truex and Furniture Row Racing really hit it off with the new points format with bonus points for winning race stages. He would enter the final race on Sunday with a series high seven wins.
My favorite driver Jeff Gordon retired in 2015. He left the sport as one of its five greatest of all-time and four championships. I think James would have told me, “the kid done good,” had he been around. He would’ve certainly thrown in, “but not as good as Dale.” Earnhardt Sr. having one three more championships than Gordon. I, of course, would’ve responded with how the changes to NASCAR’s point standings had cost Gordon potentially three more titles.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had announced his retirement from NASCAR about a quarter into the season and it kind of surprised people, but then again, the concussions had taken a toll on his life and he wanted to enjoy a life after racing with his new bride Amy. The two are set to have a daughter next May. Still it would be a huge hit to NASCAR to have its most popular driver retire right on the heels of champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Earnhardt Jr. had never won the championship in the Cup Series many expected from him, but his resume of 26 Cup wins and two Daytona 500s isn’t shabby. More importantly his humble attitude and graciousness meant more to the sport than a championship could’ve. Dale Jr. had gone from a kid when James and I had our little rivalry to a man that I grew to respect and root for on a weekly basis. There simply hasn’t been a better ambassador for NASCAR. I think James would be proud.
The championship race on Sunday would be Dale Jr.’s final race.
In the three previous seasons of this playoff format it took winning the final race for the champion to be crowned. Truex Jr. had been the best driver and his team had been the best team all season long, but the title race is now a crapshoot and all three of his competitors – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski - had won championships before and Busch and Harvick had done so in this format.
It would be a hard-fought race the entire day on Sunday with every one of the four championship eligible drivers leading the championship at one point. At the end of the race it became a dogfight between Truex and Busch. Truex had the lead, but it looked at one point like Busch had the faster car and might find a way to pass Truex to win the race and the championship. That never happened. Truex won his eighth race of the season, more races than he had won in his career coming into the year, and the championship just four years after it looked like he wouldn’t even continue in the sport. It was a feel-good story for many.
I don’t know where James is now, but wherever he is I hope he had the opportunity to see what his guys had become on Sunday in the final race of the NASCAR season. I wish I could pat him on the back and tell him “your boys done good.”
by Julian Spivey
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after 18 seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series after this weekend’s season-ending race at Miami-Homestead Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. has won two Daytona 500s in his career that has seen him reach Victory Lane in NASCAR’s highest series on 26 occasions. Earnhardt Jr. has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver honor a record 15 straight times and won the Busch Series (NASCAR’s minor leagues) championship in back-to-back seasons in 1998 and 1999. Most importantly Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the most likable drivers and great personalities in an era that saw the sport really boom in national popularity. The sport is certainly going to miss him on the track.
10. Most Popular Driver from 2003-2017
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a record for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, which is a fan-voted honor, that will never be broken. When he assuredly wins the award this year it’ll be his 15th consecutive honor. Earnhardt Jr. had this thing sewn up almost from the start gaining the bulk of his father’s fanbase upon Dale Sr.’s death in 2001 and gaining millions of fans on his right through his likable personality and perseverance among tragedy. It’ll be interesting to see which driver takes the torch from Dale Jr. as “Most Popular.”
9. Michigan snaps 143-race winless streak 2012
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has unfortunately had a few rather lengthy winless streaks in his career. It’s something that must be completely disheartening for a driver to experience, especially one who’s had as much success over his career as Dale Jr. Michigan seems to be the track for Dale Jr. when he’s on a winless streak. In 2008 he snapped a 76-race winless streak at Michigan Speedway. Then in 2012 amidst a 143-race winless streak, one race shy of four full seasons, Earnhardt Jr. dominated the race winning by more than five seconds to get the monkey off his back.
8. 2000 All Star Race – first rookie to win
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on record saying that his favorite win of his career wasn’t even a points paying race. It was his first NASCAR All Star race in 2000, in which he became the first rookie to ever win the event (he remains the only to ever do so). Earnhardt Jr. passed defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett with two laps remaining in the race to take the victory. The reason for it being his favorite is his legendary father Dale Sr. got to spend the entire Victory Lane celebration with him. Dale Sr. had greeted Dale Jr. in Victory Lane twice before when Junior won his first career Cup race at Texas and his second race at Richmond, but both were brief exchanges. This time the father and son really got to experience the celebration together.
7. Wrangler #3 - 2010 Daytona
While Dale Earnhardt may have been best known for his pitch-black Goodyear car that helped gain him the nickname “The Intimidator” it was his first ride with Richard Childress in the blue and yellow Wrangler No. 3 car that Dale Jr. liked the best. Dale Jr. got the chance of a lifetime to drive this very paint scheme and that very number in the 2010 July Daytona Xfinity Series race. You just got the sense going into the race and the entire night that Dale Jr. absolutely had to put the car in Victory Lane, despite not having won in any NASCAR series in more than two years. He did just that and afterward said, “This is it. No more 3 for me.” It was a moment fans of both him and his father had always wanted to see and never will forget.
6. 1998 & 1999 Xfinity champ
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been derided occasionally over his career for not winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship, but in his defense, he has raced in the most competitive era in NASCAR history. Still he did become a NASCAR champion in 1998 and repeated in 1999 in the Busch Series (now Xfinity). Earnhardt Jr. thoroughly dominated the series in those two seasons winning 13 races, more than 20 percent of those he entered. The greatest part of it all for Dale Jr. had to be that he accomplished it driving for his father’s Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team.
5. 2000 Texas – first win
The first career win is always going to be one of the most memorable moments in any driver’s career, and if he’s lucky he’ll experience many more. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first career NASCAR Cup Series victory came at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000 during his rookie season. One of the greatest aspects of this victory was his dad, Dale Sr., joining him briefly in Victory Lane where he said, “He got a good race car, a good engine and the boy drove a good race.”
4. 2002-2003 4 straight Talladega wins
Restrictor plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway has been referred to as a crapshoot because you’re way more likely to get caught up in a big wreck than you are to win this race. Winning consecutive races at Talladega is a hard task to do. Winning four consecutive races at Talladega is almost Godlike. But, Earnhardt Jr. did just that sweeping the Cup Series races at the Alabama track in 2002 and 2003. Some said Dale Jr.’s father could see the draft and it seemed like the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s six career Cup wins at Talladega are his most of any track and is tied with Jeff Gordon for second all-time; only his father with 10 had more.
3. 2014 Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has compiled eight of his 26 career Cup Series wins while racing for Hendrick Motorsports, but none greater than his second career Daytona 500 victory in 2014, which came on the heels of a winless 2013 season. Earnhardt Jr. led a race high 54 laps to become the 11th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s.
2. 2004 Daytona 500
It famously took Dale Earnhardt Sr. 20 years to win the Daytona 500, a race that was obviously the most important to him and many felt he was owed after years of dominating only to fall short. It only took his son five tries to win the Crown Jewel of the NASCAR schedule. Dale Jr. led 58 laps of the race and held off laps leader Tony Stewart at the finish to win at the track and race that ended his father’s life just three years before.
1. 2001 Daytona July Race
The 2001 July race at Daytona was an emotional one with the sport coming back for the first time to the track that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been killed at on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody had their eyes on Dale Jr. There may not have ever been a race in NASCAR history where seemingly everybody watching wanted the same outcome: for Dale Jr. to win the race. In the Daytona 500 earlier in the season Dale Jr. had helped draft his Dale Earnhardt Incorporated teammate Michael Waltrip to victory. The roles would be reversed for the July race and it seemed like nobody could top the dominate DEI cars. Waltrip would push Dale Jr., who lead a race high 116 laps, past the finish line for the most emotional victory that many in the NASCAR community had ever seen. Dale Jr. would say, “Other than the wins I had when my father was there, that’ll be the day I always remember.”