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Home team advantage

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has taken a leadership role and cemented his place on the team his father founded.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- In the past few years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has affixed his swirling, looping signature to some pretty wild things. Pets. Bare flesh. Women's underwear. But a couple of weeks ago, he signed something for the very first time.

A contract.

Yep, Earnhardt Jr. is legally bound to Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his late father, Dale Sr., and the only racing employer Junior has known. It is, of course, a formality. No matter how intrigued Junior is by the prospect of driving for another owner, he knows his place.

DEI is his home.

"I don't think there are many people in the situation I'm in, driving for your dad," Earnhardt Jr. said recently. "You've got to understand, no matter how you put it or no matter how long I'm there, I'm always going to be the son of the man who started the business and who envisioned it all. So, I miss out on some things.

"I'm just always going to wonder what it would be like to drive for somebody else. That's not saying that I think the grass is greener on that side of the fence. I'm just always going to have that in the back of my mind. But I like where I'm at."

As practice begins today for the season-opening Daytona 500, it is hard to imagine Earnhardt Jr. climbing into anything other than the red No. 8 Chevrolet. But it could be argued that DEI is not the best place for Junior at this formative stage in his career.

The man uniquely qualified to run the company, Dale Earnhardt Sr., died at 49 in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, took over as CEO. But Junior finds himself grappling with his role in the company, wanting to fill his father's void at DEI, but not sure how to do it.

At 28, who would be?

"Teresa is going to have to make a lot of big decisions here in the future," Earnhardt Jr. said of his stepmother, with whom he is close. "I want to help her as much as I can, as much as she'll let me."

Earnhardt Jr. will serve what amounts to an ownership internship this season. He is co-owner with Teresa, who insisted on a joint venture of a Busch Grand National team that will run a partial schedule.

"We talked recently and I was telling him how impressed I was with the way he's handled these things off the racetrack," said veteran driver Dale Jarrett, whose opinion Junior respects. "He's got a strong mind. Maybe a lot of us at 28 years old weren't capable of making those type of decisions, but I look at him and think there's a lot of things he can do that maybe he hasn't shown everyone yet."

Expected to contend for the championship last year, Earnhardt Jr. won twice -- both restrictor-plate races at Talladega -- but finished 11th in the standings. He was a frequent victim of sloppy pit stops and a communication problem among he, crew chief Tony Eury Sr. -- his uncle by marriage -- and car chief Tony Eury Jr. -- his cousin. Earnhardt Jr. and Eury Jr. grew up together, so their relationship is sometimes volatile.

"We've fought like brothers since we were little kids. We always will," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's funny, because when we get new people that come into work, they ask the other guys, "Man, is it always like this?' I love him to death and that's why we fight. ... But the older we get, the better we are at getting along and being more professional."

Still, considering his growing responsibilities at DEI, relationships that blur the line between relative and co-worker and striving to become a complete driver, is it so crazy to think life might be easier for Junior in someone else's car?

"I can see how somebody would think he's a valuable commodity, being the popular driver he is," said three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, an analyst for Fox. "I know him well enough to know that because of his dedication to his father and what his father started there, he's going to always be there. Whether that's the right place or not, I'm not sure. I think the situation he's in affects his results.

"I'm like a lot of other folks, I keep waiting for him to have a breakout season. I know he's got the ability. But it's not just up to him. When the team gets on the same page he is as far as desire, then we'll see a different Dale Jr."

Earnhardt Jr. is confident offseason changes to the pit crew and redefined roles for the Eurys -- he now communicates solely with Tony Jr. -- will pay dividends on the track. He considers the No. 8 a top-five team, a bold statement for a driver whose best points finish in three seasons is eighth.

"I'm 28 years old and I've got to put myself in position to win championships," he said. "That's what I want to do is win championships. I don't want to feel like I'm compromising."

Much of Earnhardt Jr.'s curiosity about life outside DEI stems from BGN races he ran last season with Richard Childress, his father's longtime Winston Cup owner. Many have suggested Childress would be a good mentor for Earnhardt Jr. But Junior wants to make DEI work.

"Tony Sr., he treats me like his own son, like he really expects a lot out of me," Junior said. "I don't think I would get that anywhere else. That's a good feeling.

"I think sticking it out and working with these guys and getting over the tough times and stuff that we are going to have is going to make the victories sweeter. Tony Sr. said no matter what it takes, he is going to make a race car driver out of me. Hopefully, we will get to that point one day."

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