What Defines a Hall of Fame Career?

I rarely discuss NASCAR here, and when I do – it’s normally not in a very flattering way. This takes me out of my wheelhouse to discuss NASCAR, but it will get back around to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 (at least a little bit), so bear with me.

I was a little surprised to learn that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this past Tuesday. By the reaction of some fans, I wasn’t the only one. Of course, Dale, Jr. has his staunch supporters, so it became a somewhat polarizing discussion among NASCAR fans. Personally, I was a little surprised by it, but I don’t have a real problem with it.

If you look at Junior’s career stats, they don’t really scream Hall of Fame. He never won a championship. In a career that spanned nineteen Cup seasons and 631 races, Little E won twenty-six of them, but only nine in his last eleven seasons. He also won fifteen poles in those nineteen seasons. That’s solid, but not what I would consider a Hall of Fame resume.

This begs the question; should any sports Hall of Fame look strictly at the black & white numbers or should the respective committees look at all of the intangibles that went with a person’s career?

I’ve always taken the route that Pete Rose should be in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. But the fact that he bet on baseball games, while he was managing is a very serious crime. So serious, that he received a lifetime ban from the game he loved. It’s debatable if the ban precludes him from induction into the Hall of Fame, but more than thirty-three years after his last at-bat, the all-time base hit leader remains on the outside looking in, when it comes to enshrinement in Cooperstown. Rose is seventy-nine now, and the general consensus is that the voters will wait until after his death to vote him in. I don’t agree with that and still hope that one day, he’ll see his dream come true.

My argument is that regardless of what type of human being Rose is, his career warrants induction. There are a lot of bad human beings in various Halls of Fame – Ty Cobb and OJ Simpson to name just two. My reasoning is that you should strictly look at their career while they played, not how they conducted themselves away from the game. Of course, there is some evidence that suggests Rose betted on games he played in, but we’ll ignore that for this discussion.

I am not being consistent in my arguments, however, when I look at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. While his career stats demonstrate a good career; I think how he has handled himself out of the car all of these years have to weigh into the discussion. Not only was he NASCAR’s most popular driver year after year, he is probably the most recognized current name in all of motor racing, in this country anyway. When I was growing up, the two most recognized names in US racing were AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. Today, it’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

I was not thrilled last year, when NBC announced that the broadcast for the Indianapolis 500 would feature Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It immediately conjured up visions of the horrible Rusty Wallace IndyCar experiment; when ESPN forced Wallace into the IndyCar booth in 2006, just to groom him for a year before moving him into their NASCAR booth the next season. It’s nice to know that ESPN viewed IndyCar as the training wheels for their broadcasters.

Wallace was terrible and kept on trying to tell stories about his days running at Talladega and Martinsville, that IndyCar fans were really not interested in hearing. His constant references to Indy cars as “hot rods” were not well-received either. Overall, I found Rusty Wallace to be very condescending. I imagined Dale, Jr. doing much the same.

To my surprise, Junior was just the opposite. He came into the race acknowledging that the Indianapolis 500 was the ultimate race and how he always felt honored to race on the very same track during his days racing in the Brickyard 400. He sounded humbled to be included on the telecast and completely blown away after the race started. And unlike Wallace, he never once referred to it as the Daytona 500 throughout the broadcast. He instantly took a liking to then-rookie Santino Ferrucci and probably helped publicize Ferrucci’s career more than anyone.

This may irk some on the IndyCar side, but I really believe that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. may be racing’s best ambassador in this country – and I say this country, because I’m not sure how drivers are viewed in other countries. James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan may be able to match Junior in personality, but none of them bring the name recognition along with it.

Some say had his name been Dale Smith, he would not have gotten a sniff at the Hall of Fame. That may be correct, but the reality is that he is the son and namesake of a racing icon. Dale Smith would have never carried that added burden. Sons and grandsons of legendary athletes don’t always handle the situation well. Michael Andretti had almost as much talent behind the wheel as his famous father, but did not have the personality to go with it. Kyle Petty had as much personality as Richard, maybe more – but his talent level fell way short of his famous father. Al Unser, Jr probably did a better job of matching his namesake in talent and likeability, but we also know that he has had to deal with his own personal demons over the years.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. probably dealt with the enormous pressure of following a famous father better than anyone else I can think of in racing. It appears that he discovered early on that he was not going to come close to matching his famous father’s legendary stats of seven Winston Cup championships and seventy-six wins. He came to grips with that early on and decided it wasn’t going to prevent him from having the time of his life out there. That’s what made him unique. He was a combination of the modern driver who has to be a corporate spokesperson, as well as an old school throwback.

If you listened to Trackside the other night, you heard Kevin Lee talk about when Junior came to Indianapolis last year for the NBC broadcast. He came to every production meeting and jumped right in. Instead of coming across as the racing royalty that he was, he was just one of the guys. He would cut up with everybody, but also knew when it was time to get serious and get to work.

I’ve met a lot of IndyCar drivers over the last thirty years or so. Some were just as you saw them on TV, while others were a rude disappointment. I’ve never met Dale Earnhardt, Jr. but I’ve talked to many that have. To a person, they all say that he is exactly like the image you see on TV. They say he is authentic and genuine, and doesn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to go drink a cold Budweiser with.

While there are many drivers with better career stats that are not in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, I’m glad he got in. While Pete Rose should get into the Baseball Hall of Fame strictly based off of his numbers, I’m happy that NASCAR has their voters to look beyond just the stats. My logic may be flawed and I may be hypocritical in saying so, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. He has been very good for NASCAR and racing in general. It’s one of the few things that NASCAR has done right over the last couple of decades.

George Phillips

Please Note:  As I usually do for Father’s Day Weekend, I will take this weekend off and not have a post here on Monday. I probably won’t see my kids this weekend, but I still like to relax over Father’s Day weekend and not be tied to a keyboard. I will return here on Wednesday June 24. In the meantime, I wish all of the fathers out there a very Happy Father’s Day!  Come back on Wednesday. – GP

16 Responses to “What Defines a Hall of Fame Career?”

  1. Dale Jr. is an excellent dude and on the level of Mario when it comes to being an ambassador for his sport. I’d really love to tour his racecar graveyard some day.

  2. S0CSeven Says:

    I remember Rusty Wallace explaining why Danica couldn’t drive street circuits.

    Her small body size and muscle mass wouldn’t let her wrestle the bucking broncos that Indy cars were with out power steering. When the crew loosened up the car to make it easier for her, the car became too loose to drive.

    I remember it as being well thought out and quite a refreshing change from all the ‘Danica can do no wrong’ crap that we were constantly subjected to.

  3. I got to talk to Dale Jr. at media day last May. He was authentic and grateful to be a part of the race. probably the most enjoyable interview of the day. I think HOF criteria in all sports has moved away from pure statistics as the measuring stick. I’m not totally sure I agree with that approach.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    Untill Smokey Yunick is put in the hall of fame for nascar iteration bogus! But I believe Dale Jr should be there,not so much for his record but his other contributions to the sport. He is a great ambassador for Nascar, like Mario Andretti is for IndyCar and racing in general, world wide for Mario.

  5. SkipinSC Says:

    I will qualify my “no” vote by saying that we are talking about a HALL of FAME, NOT a Hall of Very Good. Based on his on-track performance, I would have to say, there are many, many drivers more deserving of this status. NASCAR, for good or bad, seems to want to lower the bar some.

    That said, he is perhaps the most popular NASCAR driver of this era, and he is a marvelous ambassador for NASCAR and motorsports in general, and, on that basis, I would not oppose his election to the HOF.

  6. Your either in a slump with this blog with content recently George or my interest in racing is dwindling slowly since the virus ? The IRacing was a big turn off and now the political pandering . I watched sports for the distraction of the current events and politics . George I am sure it is just me becoming older and grumpy ?

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Earnhardt Jr. is probably a worthy addition for his role as an ambassador for the sport alone, a “contributor” as many Halls of Fame put it. Beyond that, his career statistics compare favorably to current HOF members Buddy Baker, Curtis Turner, and Fred Lorenzen as well as notable “snubs” like Ricky Rudd and Harry Gant. Yes, there are a host of active drivers who have long since lapped DEJ’s on-track accomplishments, and their time will come.

    Pretty much every hall of fame has its share of well-liked guys who were probably closer to pretty darn good than great. See Dave Bing, Craig Biggio, and Lynn Swann, among others.

  8. I will have to disagree that Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. He made a deal with MLB to accept the lifetime ban if MLB agreed to make no formal finding from the investigation. I believe a deal is a deal. If he did not want the ban then he should have taken his chances with the investigation.

  9. I find it funny when the NASCAR fans want guys like Harry Gant and Ricky Rudd in the HoF when Dale Jr won more than either of them. I do think he belongs in there, but the NASCAR HoF is pretty weak to be honest, they rightly cut back on the enrollment from 5 to 3 this year.

    Now if Indycar had one, there are shoe-ins like Dixon, Power and Helio along with almost there guys like Pagenaud, Newgarden and RHR. Rossi will get there too but needs to win a bit more.

    It’s tough though, it’s all about opinion like many things are. I was certainly glad that Carl Edwards was not also voted in, which would have proven that the voters just care about modern era accomplishments.

  10. both Rose and Jr. deserved what they got.
    Rose made deals and Jr. changed careers.

  11. I thought Dale Jr was excellent during his coverage at Indy. He is very thoughtful in his comments and you could tell he prepared for this gig. I do think he is a good candidate for the HoF and I am pleased he has been recognized for his contributions.

  12. That Hall of Fame is not limited to Cup accomplishments. Modified legends like Mike Stefanik and Richie Evans are being considered or have been inducted. Dale Jr has a healthy number of Cup wins, including 2 Daytona 500s. He is also a 2 time Busch (now Xfinity) Series champion, and a championship-winning car owner in that series. And, as stated, he is an invaluable ambassador for stock car racing in this generation.

  13. He did win a championship, twice.

    It’s not the NASCAR Cup Series Hall of Fame, it’s the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

    That’s why Richie Evans and Jerry Cook and others are in it.

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