Dale Earnhardt Jr., sister Kelley open up about childhood relationship: 'We saved each other'

Many of the challenges Dale Earnhardt Jr. and older sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller experienced together growing up are well-documented.
Their parents divorced, they watched their late mother Brenda Jackson‘s house burn down when they were eight and six years old and, subsequently, they went to live with their father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. while Jackson moved back to Norfolk, Virginia to live with her mother. Their dad wasn’t always around, in large part because of racing, and they bounced around to several schools, including a military one.
Kelley — the co-owner of their JR Motorsports second-tier NASCAR XFINITY Series team — joined her brother on the Dale Jr. Download podcast with co-host Mike Davis for this week’s episode.
And the two siblings opened up about their relationship growing up and how “we saved each other,” as Kelley put it.

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A true badass joins the @DaleJr Download this week.
Stay tuned for the #DJD with @EarnhardtKelley tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/ZEgmT7YbXs
— Dirty Mo Media (@DirtyMoMedia) June 23, 2019

Throughout their conversation, Kelley clarified that they had a good life and were provided for. But they lacked a “family loving situation,” which was often difficult as the pair got into its fair share of trouble.
And with Dale Sr. as the disciplinarian, “You felt like he didn’t like you, [like] he didn’t love you during times when we were in trouble,” she explained.
“We had our feelings then of how we felt unloved or just didn’t have the right family unit, I would say, knowing what family should be like now,” Kelley said. “But I don’t think it bothered us as much then because we had such a good relationship.”
And they always had each other’s backs.
Dale Jr. and Kelley explained how they crashed a lot of things growing up: Go-karts, bicycles, a Volkswagen. They even T-boned each other while riding jet skis, although now, they’re not quite sure who’s fault that was. From the Dale Jr. Download:
Kelley: We did not want to go back to the pier to tell Dad. …
Dale Jr.: We had the sit-down jet skis, and she come by or I come by and one sprayed the other, and the [one] ran wide open at the other and T-boned. We were mad at each other. It was like “F you!”
Kelley: Not exactly.
Dale Jr.: Kinda. It was that attitude.

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Kelley, Dale Jr. and Rick Hendrick in 2007. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
And when co-host Davis asked them to clarify who hit the other, Dale Jr. and Kelley responded simultaneously: “I don’t remember!” But they do recall what happened next.
Kelley: Well, immediately the anger went away —
Dale Jr.: And we went fear.
Kelley: And fear came in of who was going to tell Dad and what the hell he was gonna say.
Dale Jr.: I think that says a lot about our relationship. Like, one of us might screw up, but if we were together, we both went into it —
Kelley: And helped each other.
Dale Jr.: In defense of the other.
Their support for each other was there when Dale Jr. was sent off to military school. He said after just one semester at a private Christian school, he was about to be suspended. He said it wasn’t because he was confrontational, mean or outright disrespectful, but after switching schools so often, he’d get overly excited when he made a friend, which led to talking in class and goofing off.
But, as the Earnhardt siblings said, Dale Jr. was sent to military school in the middle of seventh grade, and Kelley followed him a few weeks later in the middle of her ninth-grade year.
“I just was always looking out for him,” Kelley continued on the Dale Jr. Download. “It was always me and him. We spent so much time together. You’re talking about having nannies, you’re talking about having relatives, your parents aren’t home every weekend. We did not have the normal family unit. It was just me and Dale. …
“So I wanted to go with him and be with him and protect him. I mean, he was a scrawny little thing. You should see him in our military [photos].”
Kelley guessed they went to 13 schools in 12 years growing up, but because of that and their other shared challenges, they’re now “built to survive.”

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Kelley and Dale Jr. in 2003. (AP Photo/ Harold Hinson)
Dale Jr. publicly hands Kelley much of the credit for the success JR Motorsports and its drivers, and on the podcast, she said it’s partly because of their upbringing. Addressing why she’s been so successful on the business side of a male-dominated industry, they said:
Kelley: I’m just down-to-Earth and hard-working. I’ve always had a work ethic like that, and I don’t know where it came from. I do say that’s like a positive from our childhood, from that situation, is like we were built to survive, so to speak. I feel that way about myself, I’m not so sure about Dale. I can’t speak for him in that, but I feel like we were set up to survive situations, and hard things were put in front of us from that standpoint.
Dale Jr.: And in my mind, you said it, I see you like a lot of other people see you, as a very important person not only in my life from a personal and a business standpoint but you’re in the industry. You’re very important in the industry and being able to help people understand what’s critical and what’s important and what needs to happen in certain situations — from ownership to licensing, all types of different departments and compartments in this sport. And it’s my belief that you’re only halfway through your journey, and that there’s even more greater accomplishments and milestones in your professional future.

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