Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a far too much of a student of racing not to have an opinion on the 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. In summation: He approved.
And he’s invested in the sport enough after two decades to not wonder how his own career compares with those that have come before him. That curiosity would naturally increase as he approaches the final 25 races of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, beginning on Sunday in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He’s already sizing up his chances. Has been for a while, actually.
"I have a habit of looking at the drivers," the two-time Daytona 500 winner offered on Thursday. "I’ll admit that I look through the list of all-time winners and look at the ones that are in the Hall of Fame and look where my name is and see how many guys are in front of me and how many are probably going to get in, will I ever get in and all that stuff.
"You know it must be a tremendous emotional piece of relief and satisfaction to get that kind of reward."
It’s a reward that will undoubtedly be bestowed upon him sometime soon after becoming eligible in 2021. Likely, immediately. Recent voting trends and the soundness of his hard numbers assure that. And his intangibles are exemplary, assuring he ascend to the enshrinement his late father and namesake attained posthumously with the inaugural class in 2010.
With 26 victories, Earnhardt Jr., is currently 29th on the all-time list, seventh among active drivers and has won the sport’s most prestigious race twice. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, third all-time with 93 wins will sweep into the Hall on the first ballot next year. Three-time series champion Tony Stewart, 13th on the all-time wins list, should follow him the next.
Non-active but self-described not-retired Carl Edwards (28) is the only driver not currently racing with more victories than Earnhardt.
Fred Lorenzen was inducted in 2015 with 26 victories and one Daytona 500 win. Curtis Turner, like Lorenzen anointed one of NASCAR’s "50 Greatest Drivers" and a key figure in the sport's lore, was elected a year later with 17 victories and passel of back story.
Add Earnhardt Jr.’s two titles in the second-tier Xfinity Series and he’s in. Factor that he’s been the series’ most popular driver for 14 consecutive seasons, that in three years he might have embarked on a Benny Parsons-esque career as a TV analyst, become more of a phenomenon as a podcaster, pitchman and Xfinity Series owner and we can all just vote right now.
"I watched really closely when Mark (Martin) got going in there last year and it just seemed to really validate all the work," said Earnhardt, who was third in the Coca-Cola 600 here two years ago. "Even the stuff he did before he got to Cup, it really just kind of sealed ... it brought some closure I guess to his career. It’s got to feel the same way for these guys."
Earnhardt said he was "really pleased" at the election of championship engine-builder and car-owner Robert Yates, who continues to battle liver cancer and the after effects of experimental treatments to mitigate it.
As for broadcaster Ken Squier, "nobody has called a better race since the ’79 (Daytona) 500, many guys have tried and came close, but I still feel like that is the standard."
And four-time truck series champion Ron Hornaday, who was afforded his NASCAR brake from Earnhardt Sr.: "Hornaday getting in, I thought that he deserves the credit and certainly the truck series wouldn’t be the truck series today without guys like him."
Earnhardt will soon be among peers.
© 2017 USATODAY.COM