Even with health scare, Big Sister looks out for Dale Jr.

Family comes first for Kelley Earnhardt Elledge. After being told she did in fact have a tumor, her thoughts quickly turned to the welfare of one person: little brother Dale Jr.

Updated: April 29, 2007, 1:48 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

In a week bursting at the seams with sensationalistic story lines in NASCAR, one of the most talked about is Jimmy Spencer's outburst against Kelley Earnhardt Elledge during SPEED Channel's prerace programming.

Spencer has both the right and the platform to say whatever he pleases, and he later apologized for characterizing Elledge as "arrogant." But in this case I'd be hard-pressed to disagree more.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, and sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge
AP Photo/ Harold HinsonKelley Earnhardt Elledge, left, on brother Dale Jr.: "I'm his security net."

Earnhardt Elledge is far from egotistical. The antithesis, actually. And a recent visit with her provided a prime example as to why.

At the grand opening of JR Motorsports' new 66,000-square-foot shop last week in Mooresville, N.C., I spent about 20 minutes interviewing Kelley. Just her and me. One of the first questions I posed was in reference to her recent cancer scare.

Three weeks ago Kelley had surgery to remove a benign tumor from her pancreas. She said it was first considered a cyst that doctors said would go away. But that didn't make sense, she said, because she'd had no previous pain or doctor visits. The physicians' descriptions of her condition didn't sound right. Only she truly knew her body, and how it felt.

Kelley kept pressing. It just didn't seem right. At the suggestion of Nextel Cup team owner Rick Hendrick, she changed doctors, and was informed she'd been misdiagnosed. She indeed had a tumor.

"Any time they're talking cancer and big surgeries, it's tough," she said. "Luckily, between the time they told it was a tumor, and the time I had surgery was [one] week, so we didn't have a lot of time to dwell on anything really negative."

That raised the question: "What was your initial reaction to the term 'tumor'?"

Her response was quite telling. And hair-raising.

"We've already been through one tragedy with our dad," she began, "so that was really on my heart for Dale Jr. I was like, 'Oh God, please don't tell me anything is terminally wrong with me, because I wouldn't want him to have to go through that again.'"

So here she's being told by physicians she might have cancer, and her first concern is her brother.

"I feel that way because he needs me," she continued. "All of our life it's been he and I. The struggles we went through early with our parents splitting up, and us moving in with our dad and Teresa, and them being gone all the time and us growing up with nannies, we just really grew close.

"It was he and I. It's always been just he and I. We have an awesome mom, and she lives down here [in North Carolina] with us, but Dale and I just have a bond that I don't hear a lot of other people describe, in terms of trusting each other."

Kelley was asked to describe the trust between them.

"I know I could never take the place of my dad, but I have taken some of that trust and guidance that my dad gave to Dale on."
-- Kelley Earnhardt Elledge

"Since he's a boy and I'm a girl, more of the nurturing and the forgiveness, and all those kinds of things, I'm a lot better at than he is," she said. "But I know he trusts me immensely.

"And all of that keeps us going on both sides -- the respect we have for each other and that we can say to each other, and tell each other what we wanted to without judgment. That's big. There's so much peer pressure, and so many people judging you about everything. I'm his security net."

In short, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge faces the impossible -- filling the substantial void left by the loss of a father and hero.

"I say that because we lost our dad, and our dad was the most powerful figure ever to my brother," Kelley said. "I know I could never take the place of my dad, but I have taken some of that trust and guidance that my dad gave to Dale on.

"And I don't know where he would look next if something happened [to me]," she said. "I know he would step up for himself, but I'd hate for him to have to juggle all that. I want him to concentrate on being a race-car driver, and being the best race-car driver he can be.

"And there comes so many pressures with our sport, that if I can take the business needs off of him -- someone would step in, but I feel like I look after him. I look at him and his stuff. I benefit in the long run from that. I have no different motives."

Earnhardt Jr. told me last week that his sister took a considerable pay cut when she left Action Performance to run her brother's rapidly expanding enterprise. She did it because she cares so deeply for her little brother.

Selfless, indeed.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.