Brian Golden

Ron Hornaday Jr. has some company today.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Tuesday.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer, more decent man.

Much like his namesake father, Dale Jr. transcended stock car racing.

People who had no clue what NASCAR was an acronym for followed the crown prince of American racing religiously.

Bill Huth, the late legendary owner of Willow Springs International Raceway, loved to tell the story of the day he pulled in to a general store in Montana.

“So,” the octogenarian store proprietor said as Huth walked up to the register to pay for his purchases. “How’d Dale Jr. do last weekend?”

Huth and his race track claim ownership of one of the scarier stories about Little E.

In the 2004 NASCAR Cup race at Fontana, Kevin Harvick put Junior into the turn-four wall by accident.

That’s the man who succeeded his father in the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Next day, Dale Jr. helicoptered to Willow Springs to film a music video with Sheryl Crow.

To this day, he doesn’t remember any of it.

He’d suffered a nasty concussion in the collision with the pre-SAFER barrier wall.

Of course, the staff at Willow Springs remember every bit of that day.

Not even nasty head trauma could change Earnhardt’s pleasant, down-to-earth, how-ya-doin’ personality.

Which remains so remarkable about the man.

His father was the King of NASCAR Nation.

The way he drove so selfishly on track, crashing everyone out of his way, became the envy of millions of American motorists.

Come to think of it, the orgy of selfish driving that is better known as the 14 Speedway morning commute, with cutting in and out of lanes without signaling, tailgating and speeding, suggests there is an ongoing tribute to The Intimidator every morning around here.

That’s what makes Earnhardt’s death on the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 the stuff of fable.

The man who never stepped aside for anyone was sacrificing himself, blocking the rest of the field so his son and his best friend, Michael Waltrip, could drag race for the win.

The response to Earnhardt’s death was Elvis-like.

Dale Jr. never got any time to himself to grieve his father’s death.

The torch of the fastest-growing sport in America at the time was passed to the crown prince.

He has handled it with astonishing nobility.

He stopped to talk to every fan, sign every autograph, do every interview and even console fans whose grief wasn’t a fraction of his.

Not a ham by personality, he went along with the fuss being made about him because it was good for business.

NASCAR’s annual merchandising exploded to $3 billion, and the guy who finished 43rd each week got the same amount that Junior did.

He did go back to Daytona for the Fourth of July night race in 2001, and walked up the 31-degree banking of turn four to sit at the spot his father was killed for a few prayerful hours.

Then, in one of the most dramatic, emotional victories in NASCAR history, he won the first race back at the place where he lost his father.

In 2004, “With my Daddy ridin’ shotgun,” Junior won the Daytona 500.

At the Daytona 500 Champions breakfast the next morning, Junior came around to each table to say hello.

“Sorry if I don’t make sense,” he told our table from behind eyes reddened by all-night partying. “We did a little celebratin’ last night.”

Even today, his JR Motorsports team with his sister, Kelley, has given dozens of young drivers a shot at NASCAR’s big time.

In one important, unselfish way, Junior is nothing like his Daddy.

In every way, it is Dale Earnhardt’s son who will join him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021.

It makes perfect sense to us, Junior.

Now it’s our turn to do a little celebratin’.

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