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Earnhardt likely a first-ballot Hall of Famer

JEFF BIRCHFIELD • Apr 17, 2020 at 8:30 PM

Dale Earnhardt Jr. never won a NASCAR Cup Series championship.

He never led the series in wins or pole positions in a single season. Yet there is no doubt that Earnhardt is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It would be a major shock if he wasn’t inducted into the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.

Of all the nominees for the 2021 class, Earnhardt rises to the top.

Carl Edwards was more successful on-track, winning 28 races and losing the closest championship battle in series history to Tony Stewart in 2011. But Earnhardt has two Daytona 500 wins among his 26 career victories and his impact off the track laps the rest of the 2021 field of nominees.

His on-track performance alone should be enough to get Earnhardt in the hall.

He currently ranks in the top 30 of all-time wins with the aforementioned Daytona wins as well as wins in the 2004 Bristol Night Race and the 2001 Winston All-Star race. His six wins at Talladega tie former teammate Jeff Gordon for second on the track’s all-time list, behind only Earnhardt’s father with 10 wins.

Combined with his four wins at Daytona, Earnhardt has 10 restrictor-plate wins overall, behind only his father with 13 and Gordon with 12.

In addition, Earnhardt is a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion with 24 wins, including six at Daytona.

Other than Edwards, who has 38 Xfinity Series wins, Earnhardt’s Cup Series numbers stack up favorably against any of the other 2021 nominees.

Ricky Rudd has strong Hall of Fame credentials with 23 Cup Series wins, which included a streak at least one win for 16 consecutive seasons from 1983-98. Rudd also had 29 pole positions and he ranks second in both consecutive starts (788) and all-time starts (906).

Jeff Burton, who serves as NBC analyst, had 21 wins and six poles as a driver. Neil Bonnett, a member of the famed “Alabama Gang” and the best friend of Earnhardt’s father, has 18 wins and 20 poles. Harry Gant, most famous for his run in the Skoal Bandit cars, posted 18 wins and 17 poles and was also runner-up for the 1984 series championship.

Earnhardt had his two best seasons in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet while still with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. The third-generation driver won two races and finished runner-up to Matt Kenseth in the 2003 point standings. His best year as far as victories was 2004, when he won six times and scored 16 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 36 races.

His season included a Daytona 500 victory over Tony Stewart and wins on the short tracks at Bristol and Richmond, along with victories at Atlanta, Phoenix and Talladega.

Driving the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports, he had a revival in 2014-15 when he won seven races — including his second Daytona 500 victory — over a two-year stretch. He swept races at Pocono in 2014 and took the points lead a week later at Watkins Glen.

He scored a career-high 22 top-10 finishes in 2015. The numbers included Earnhardt’s final career win at Phoenix when he held off Kevin Harvick. It wasn’t Earnhardt’s last NASCAR victory as he led 128 of 149 laps to win a Xfinity Series race at Richmond in 2016.

Once you count in other factors, Earnhardt’s impact on the sport is enormous.

He was voted NMPA Most Popular Driver 15 times, only one behind the all-time record held by Bill Elliott. He remains incredibly popular as an analyst for NBC Sports and his online podcasts are a tremendous success.

When it’s all totaled, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems to be a sure bet to be voted into the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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