NASCAR's points leader suffered an early exit from the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway Monday, but in the process, exhibited qualities of sportsmanship, humility and responsibility that could serve as a lesson to many.
It happened on lap 13: Dale Earnhardt Jr. inexplicably skimmed the grass along the apron of the track, damaging the front end and causing the car to veer back across traffic and slam into the outside wall, bursting into flames. Earnhardt was unhurt, but the badly-damaged car would not continue and Earnhardt finished dead last. The wreck also dented the car of teammate Jimmie Johnson.
During the post-incident interview, Earnhardt was given multiple opportunities to provide reasons for the crash, including a rain-soaked infield, but he refused to take the easy way out. Earnhardt quickly admitted he made a mistake; no excuses and no finger-pointing.
The split-second lapse in judgment impacted more than Earnhardt himself; it cost his own team as well as Johnson a potentially better finish, and dropped the 88 car five spots in the point standings. But he could probably look himself in the mirror and get a good night's sleep afterward.
It's one of the hardest things to do for any professional in any field: admitting an error; and seemingly the more successful someone is, the more perfect they are expected to be. A driver among the best in the world, leading the season standings, shouldn't make such a rookie mistake. Still, Earnhardt owned it, and it's not the first time.
After causing a multi-car wreck at the end of the Daytona Nationwide race earlier this season, Earnhardt not only took responsibility, but offered to replace the damaged bodies of the involved cars, including owner-driver Joe Nemechek. That gesture may not seem like much for a multi-millionaire with a racing birthright, but it proved that Earnhardt's apology was more than lip-service.
Maybe it was his years in military school; maybe it was a lesson learned from his father; or maybe it is simply a part of his character. Wherever it came from, the willingness and ability to take responsibility for one's actions, particularly the errors, is a quality to be admired and emulated.
And it's the only way to learn from our mistakes. We've seen it many times after a NASCAR crash - drivers blaming one another, continuing feuds for weeks and even seasons, damaging not only their cars, but sometimes their careers.
Meanwhile, one of the most recognizable figures in sports exhibits qualities that athletics should teach: integrity, responsibility and accountability. It's one of the reasons he continues to rank among the most popular drivers in the series. Even if Junior never wins a Sprint Cup Championship, his legacy as one of the good guys is secure.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.