It was completely appropriate that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton were honored during the same Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame ceremony, given the mutual respect and admiration the two men have for each other.
Earnhardt was the latest inductee into the hall, and Helton received the Bruton Smith Legend Award during a luncheon in the Grand Ballroom at Texas Motor Speedway.
Helton was a good friend of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., and that association continued into the next generation. Though Helton has some Earnhardt stories he said he will take to the grave, he did share two instances that underscored his closeness with the Earnhardts.
The first came less than five months after Earnhardt Sr. lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about what is your favorite Dale Jr., moment, and there’s actually two of them, and they happened in the same year,” Helton said. “The first one was in July, the Coke Zero 400 win in 2001. The whole industry needed a healing moment – and that was it.
“The second one was in the same year, but it was in September at Dover, when after 9/11 we had skipped New Hampshire (which was postponed after the World Trade Center attacks). So we go to Dover for the first race back after 9/11, and Dale Jr., wins that. Again, we all needed a big healing moment and Dale Jr., helped us through.”
Earnhardt Jr. credited Helton with providing invaluable guidance throughout his career.
“I can promise you, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this guy right here as part of the sport,” Earnhardt said, as he and Helton shared the stage. “He not only led a lot of us in the sport, he taught my wife and I a lot of personal lessons.
“When I lost my father, I leaned on a lot of people, but I didn’t lean on anybody more than (Helton). He’s really been incredibly impactful to me throughout my life. The sport has a lot of superstar drivers, but this guy here is a superstar. He’s not on TV, but he’s a superstar in this sport.”