Junior hits birthday milestone with grace

10/10/2009 - NASCAR

FONTANA, Calif. -- Remember that cute cotton-top kid who used to stand around pit road watching his father become a legend?

That kid turned 35 on Saturday, no longer the mischievous little boy who happily idolized his dad and loved it every time he got to join him in Victory Lane.

Few people have experienced more extremes of triumph and tragedy in three and a half decades than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

So what does it mean to him to reach his mid-30s?

"I don't know, just another day older," Earnhardt said Friday. "Maybe when I get home I'll have dinner with my family."

Turning 35 wasn't too important to Earnhardt right after a disappointing qualifying run that puts the No. 88 Chevy 37th on the starting grid for the Pepsi 500 on Sunday. But he did have one reflective moment.

"I feel pretty good about what I've been able to do," Earnhardt said. "But it sure has gone by pretty fast."

If anyone was destined for stardom, Earnhardt Jr. was the guy, the offspring and namesake of NASCAR royalty.Dale Earnhardt tied Richard Petty for championship greatness with seven Cup titles.

The obvious assumption was that Earnhardt Jr. would join his dad and win a few championships of his own, but following a legend never is an easy task.

The wide-eyed boy became the central figure of the sport when Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Junior won the next Daytona race that July in one of NASCAR's most dramatic moments. He also won the 2004 Daytona 500. It seemed only a matter of time until he earned a Cup crown.

He and his legion of fans are still waiting, and a championship isn't a realistic option at this point.

Earnhardt is suffering through the worst season of his career. He hasn't won this year and didn't make the Chase.

Moving to Hendrick Motorsports last year was supposed to help him get there. It hasn't yet, but his teammates see Earnhardt in a different light than just a race car driver.

Mark Martin is one of the few drivers who were around when Junior first started attending races as a boy.

"I am really proud of him and proud for him," Martin said Friday. "I've said before and I'll say again, he is, in my eyes, the strongest man in NASCAR.

"He really inspires me, the way he's managed to handle the amount of fame and scrutiny, and just the crush of all of that, with broad shoulders and grace."

Martin also knows a thing or two about driving. His opinion of Junior's skills might surprise you.

"He is a heck of a race car driver," Martin said. "I look forward to when he gets back on a roll and shows everybody just how good he really is."

Jeff Gordon said people are mistaken if they believe Earnhardt lacks the passion and dedication to win.

"He's at one of the best organizations, and he feels that pressure like the rest of us," Gordon said Friday. "When the results aren't there, he beats himself up.

"It's tough to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. A lot of people look from the outside and go, 'Oh man, I would like to be him. He's got it so good.' But that's not necessarily the case."

Like Earnhardt, Martin lost his father in a tragic accident. Martin's father, Julian, was killed in a private plane crash in 1998 when Martin was 39.

"Tragedy is a tough part of life that everyone has to deal with,'' Martin said. "For me, it was really tough because he was my hero. There never will be anyone in my life that was in his league in that respect. I just miss being able to share the good times, as well as when I am not having a good day, maybe having someone to lean on.

"But [Junior's] loss in many ways was 10 times over mine because of his father's fame, the scrutiny, the media and the crush of all of that. So there again, it just reiterates what I said to start with about Dale Jr."

Some people say Earnhardt Jr. drives much more like Martin (cautious, patient and usually courteous to other competitors) than Earnhardt Sr., an aggressive racer known as "The Intimidator."

"That is a reasonable observation," Martin said. "People see what they want to see, but I see some of that as well. But no matter what, I admire and appreciate the way he conducts himself on and off the race track."

Gordon said that Earnhardt doesn't want to be judged by his father's accomplishments, but that Junior knows he can't escape the comparisons.

At age 35, Earnhardt Sr. won his second championship and had 20 Cup victories. Earnhardt Jr. has 18 Cup wins and still hopes to win a Cup title before he's done.

"I think he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be a great driver," Gordon said of Earnhardt. "But he also does a great job not trying to live in his dad's shadow. He wants to be his own person and driver.

"He's a normal guy, but he just has different situations that he has to deal with. Sometimes they're pretty extreme, and I give him a lot of credit for handling it the way that he does."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.