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Earnhardt Jr. can't outrun inevitable growing pains

Not sure why he's a star after a lackluster season, he's learning to deal with the fame.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Not many years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a regular guy changing oil at his father's Chevrolet dealership. No one paid much attention.

And now?

Earnhardt shakes his head, unable to make sense of all the fuss. What he says, what he does, what he wears, where he goes -- the NASCAR world hangs on every detail.

When Junior speaks, people listen.

"It's overwhelming to have the kind of popularity that he has," said Ty Norris, executive vice president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., which fields the No. 8 Chevrolet. "He constantly sits there and asks, "Why? Why all of a sudden am I important? Because I wasn't important before and I'm not any different, I just drive race cars.'

"It bothers him because he thinks it's superficial. He almost feels like it's not deserved, but he can't change what's been thrust upon him. All he can do is deal with it."

* * *

Earnhardt Jr. is among the favorites for today's EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, where he has won the past two races. But his season has been a disappointment.

Ranked 13th in the standings with one victory, Earnhardt felt the need two weeks ago to explain his subpar performance, telling two reporters that for six weeks after a hard hit at California in April he suffered a lingering concussion. No big deal.

Yeah, right.

Junior's comments, and the fact he kept the injury a secret to avoid the scrutiny endured by teammate Steve Park in his return from a brain injury, created a controversy the young star never saw coming. In less than a week NASCAR had a policy requiring drivers with head injuries to receive medical clearance to drive.

Earnhardt believes the situation was blown out of proportion. The concussion, he said, impaired his ability to communicate with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. but not his ability to drive. Still, he wishes he had been up front with NASCAR president Mike Helton about the injury, and regrets that his actions reflected poorly on NASCAR.

"I probably would have told -- I definitely, definitely, not probably, would have told Mike Helton and a few of the officials so they could be aware of it," Earnhardt said. "They would have probably helped me with a better way of handling it. I kind of hurt the trust between me and Mike a little bit. I think I told the wrong people at the wrong time."

For most of this season Earnhardt has struggled to understand why so much attention is paid to a driver not in the championship race. But he is the son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

In the garage area, onlookers crowd around Junior's car and hauler to watch. Fans turn out in droves at his public appearances. He recently was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, tabbed as the man who will drive NASCAR's future.

It makes Junior squirm.

"I feel so undeserving sometimes because we run like c--- on the race track and we still get all this attention, being the focal point of the sport and we're going to lead the sport into the new millennium, whatever," he said recently.

"We go to all these appearances and all these people show up, and I never get used to it. It's good, it's fun, the excitement is great, but it makes me a little nervous sometimes, because I never get used to it. I wonder whether I ever will."

The flurry of activity around his team at the track, Earnhardt said, makes it hard to focus and has a negative impact on his relationship with team members. But communication between he and Eury Jr., a cousin and childhood pal, is getting better.

More than anything Earnhardt wants to be worthy of the attention he receives, to win races and championships. Norris sees Earnhardt growing into his role as the sport's superstar.

"He spent most of his life talking and no one listening," Norris said. "But he's learning in a hurry. When you're the most exposed guy in this garage area in the second most popular sport in America, people listen. So, you have to be extra careful what you say and how you say it and who you say it about."

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