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Racing 2004

A man of his own

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has developed into a championship contender despite his legendary name.

Published February 13, 2004

[Photo: AP(2003)]
Like his father, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has dominated at Talladega, having won four of the past five events.

photoABOVE: The Earnhardts had a chance to race as teammates in the 2001 Rolex 24. Dale Earnhardt’s death in a crash at the Daytona 500 left big shoes for his son to fill.
[Photo: AP (2001)]

RIGHT: A more serious and mature Dale Earnhardt Jr. is considered a threat to win the 2004 championship.
[Photo: Getty Images (2003) Craig Jones]

DAYTONA BEACH - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a 29-year-old who does what he loves for a living, does it very well and is adored by millions.

He's made more money in eight years as a NASCAR driver than the fans who plaster themselves with his red No. 8 memorabilia could amass in a dozen lifetimes.

But since he decided to draft behind his late father onto the asphalt tracks of NASCAR, he has been pulled along by forces he could not always control. Immaturity blended with immediate, all-encompassing fame, spiked with expectation make for a potent mix.

On one side he's "Junior," the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, compared to him, against him and assigned the duty of taking over for his father as the hero of millions of fans. He's liked by many drivers, envied by others who feel his bloodline has earned him extra benefits on and off the track.

On the other he's "Junebug," the grown-up kid with the laid-back attitude and all the cool toys.

"I just think the world of that kid," said Dale Jarrett, who has known Earnhardt Jr. all his life. "I just think he is a really neat kid for all he has done and been through.

"He's come to me before with questions, and I've tried my best to give him as good as advice as I could, because that's what his dad did for me."

Affable and likable, Earnhardt Jr. can make his own friends. But his racing reputation largely has been an outgrowth of his last name. The one that has created so many opportunities, the one that prevents him from having an identity separate from his father's.

That could all change this year. Considered more serious and mature by his competitors, Earnhardt Jr. seems more prepared to match hype with performance.

Finally, he could be ready to win his first Nextel Cup championship.

And that is a scary thought for his peers, even four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who is both one of the most loved and hated drivers on the circuit. In the past few years, he has seen Earnhardt Jr. pull a little bit ahead in the popularity contest.

"A little bit? I'd say more than a little bit," Gordon said last spring. "I don't know if I ever had that kind of popularity. He has certainly earned it over the last couple years. If he wins the championship - game over for anybody else. We're not even going to exist out there."

Earnhardt was 29 when he won his first championship. His son will turn 30 on Oct.10, the day of the Kansas race. After winning Busch Series titles in 1998-99, Earnhardt Jr. has nine Cup wins and 58 top 10s in five seasons. He won twice last season, improving away from the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, where he and his father have a history of dominance. In the process, he produced his best finish in the standings, third.

Earnhardt had one win in his first five seasons but won five in 1980 for the first of his seven championships.

"It's a really rewarding feeling to be looked at as a guy who can win championships," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It bothered me a lot that people didn't look at me as a guy who could win. It changed this past year probably a little bit."

It changed with the perception that Earnhardt Jr. took his job more seriously. It began last year when he moved his residence to be nearer Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Mooresville, N.C., race shop. He has been as involved in the daily business of building a major team as managing the Junior Empire.

"People said I wasn't focused," he said. "It's good to be able to produce what we know we're capable of doing. I've grown up a little bit lately, and I take it more serious now than I did as a rookie.

"I didn't want to take it serious as a rookie because everyone had such high expectations and I didn't want to be part of that. I didn't want that responsibility. I like driving race cars, and I do it because it's fun."

Admittedly more of a reckless free spirit in the Busch Series, he has learned to be more businesslike and calculating.

"I was pretty immature in the Busch Series," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We're a lot different team now, as far as how we structure and prepare to go to the racetrack each week. My mentality, as far as I am going to drive the race, our whole game, our whole program is different than how we came in as rookies.

"We were a little too carefree to be competitive by the seat of pants. We need to see the idea of how to win rather than just get there with the fastest car."

Like his father, Earnhardt Jr. has taken on an ownership role. With his stepmother, Teresa, owner of his Cup team, he will run a Busch team this season for Martin Truex Jr.

It's all part of the evolution of Junior. He admits some offtrack commitments, from documentaries to guest starring in music videos, have hurt his racing, but so far he has done an amazing job balancing his roles, from driver to guardian of a racing legacy to the slacker with the backwards baseball cap and a group of friends called the Dirty Mo Posse.

"What happened here in 2001 (Earnhardt Sr.'s death on the last lap of the Daytona 500), it had a huge effect on all of us," retired driver and Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip said. "And that's his dad and that was his mentor. I think Dale Jr. is still coming back from that. I'm not sure he's all the way there yet, but he's a lot better than he was.

"Now he's No. 8. They don't identify with him as having to drive the No. 3 car to be an Earnhardt. He's got his own identity, and as that identity continues to grow - and it's growing by leaps and bounds - I think he'll become more and more mature and responsible. And then when he wins his first championship, no telling what will happen after that."

If Earnhardt Jr. finally does win his first title, the racing side of his life will be more pressure-filled. He will be expected to challenge Gordon and rising stars Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson for titles for another decade. Win more than one, and the comparisons to his father's record-sharing title haul begin.

"I feel like there is a lot of pressure to be a part of the sport and carry the sport," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(But) I don't feel a lot of pressure to carry the sport. Just understand I have to do it the way I need to do because I'm my own person."

[Last modified February 11, 2004, 13:00:10]

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