- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits quietly in thought on a tan, plush chair positioned in the center of a secluded conference room at Hammerhead, the television production studio he owns just outside Mooresville, N.C. His arms are folded across his chest, concealing the sponsor logos splashed across the front of his gray hoodie. His legs, covered in jeans, are extended in front him. He is relaxed.
His demeanor on this warm January morning is easy, jovial. He cuts up with NASCAR president Mike Helton via text message and compliments a friend's attire. He even shows up early. He knows why he's there, but asks anyway.
The room is dark, save for the glare of the spotlight on Junior's face. He stares blankly at the floor, down and to his right, negotiating in his mind the best way to approach the 10th year of questions about his father's death.
The memories of Feb. 18, 2001, are foggy, erratic and spotty. Nothing especially stands out about the days leading up to the 43rd Daytona 500, either, though Junior figures it's fair to say the father-son relationship was better than ever. He doesn't recall any special excitement coming to the white flag in second position behind his teammate and in front of his dad. It was 10 years ago, after all.
He does remember distinctly, though, a conversation before the race. Dale Earnhardt walked into the transporter and reminded Junior that they had the horses to win the thing and that they needed to work together to get it done. Junior remembers scoffing at the notion. He wasn't there to help others. He was there to win for himself. Period.
Big E and Michael Waltrip, though, had the same agenda, Junior said. They planned to collectively spank the field for 498 miles and then sort it out amongst themselves when the checkers were in the air. That plan materialized, as the trio ran 1-2-3 on the final lap.
There is a prevailing sentiment that Dale Earnhardt was blocking the competition to benefit Junior and Waltrip. That sentiment is wrong.
"If his car developed a run good enough to pass for the lead, he would have done it," Junior said after a long pause. "He knew that me and Michael were going to work together and that we'd be hard to pass.
"Also, yeah, he owned them cars, so maybe he was a little reluctant to pass us because of that. But blocking? No. If he was blocking for anybody, he was blocking for himself. But not for me, not for Michael."
Junior saw the black No. 3 car wreck in the rearview mirror and thought nothing of it. He was disappointed that they wouldn't finish 1-2-3, but in the moment he was far more concerned that he wasn't leading the race. To come that close to winning the Daytona 500 after months of preparation and planning, two weeks at the track and four intense hours of racing was deflating.
He parked on pit lane after finishing second and was shuttled off to Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. It was there that he saw his father. That is when he learned his dad had died.
Past that, Junior will not discuss specific details and emotions from that day any longer. Doing so now, he says, is distasteful and makes him look foolish and does his father no service. Not only is it uncomfortable for him, but he says it is self-righteous and self-serving. In the past he has described his personal feelings openly and has no desire to relive them now.
He won't take credit for the emotional weight he bore in the aftermath, for being a crutch for millions of his dad's fans. He gets frustrated at the notion that he deserves any.
"What happened, happened," Junior said. "Dang, man, everyone needs to get over it. It's the way of the world. It's what we're dealt. It's the way it is. Ain't nothing you can do about it. You've gotta keep working, gotta keep moving. You've got a life of your own. This thing keeps going. You have to get your ass in gear, trying to make the best with what you've got, with your life, trying to make the best of your life."
Junior's ability to carry on is rooted in a comment from his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, in the days immediately following Dale's death.
"Teresa said something one day that really struck me; I'll never forget it," he said. "She said we can't be selfish and be sad because we're missing that person. Her point was, it's selfish for us to miss that person in our lives, as if they belong to us solely.
"There's a lot of people obviously sad and mourning, and we should be happy he was a part of our lives, we had that opportunity to be a part of their lives. That's the way I always thought about it. I was like, man, you're right, that is so life. I should be thankful I was a part of his life. I shouldn't be selfishly mourning the fact that he's not a part of mine anymore. I thought that was a good way to look at it."
His entire life, Junior wanted nothing more than to hold his father's attention and make him proud, be it through good grades as a kid, defiance as a teen or fast laps as a young man.
"I think, like all kids, he wanted Dad to be proud of the things he did in school, sports, etc.," said Kelley Earnhardt, Junior's sister. "Because our dad traveled a ton and wasn't always home to be a part of school and sports activities, it probably made that desire stronger than most.
"When Dale started racing, he particularly wanted to make Dad proud. After all, our dad was a winner and champion while we were growing up. [Junior] wanted to win like him for that pat on the back to say, 'You did a good job.'"
Never has the want to make his dad proud been stronger than it is right now.
"Death is a weird thing," Junior said, his demeanor slightly more animated. "When you have parents, you want to do things that honor them and make them proud. I'm sure it's the same whether you lost your parent at 25 or 45.
"When they die, the responsibility to do right by them and honor them becomes more important to you, because they're not here to tell you, 'Hey man, don't be doing that' or 'Yeah, you're making me proud or you're not.' So you do things to make them proud. And I'm sure -- 100 damn percent -- my father would not want me discussing this 10 years later."
There are certain things Dale Jr. doesn't mind talking about. He laughs now at how his dad ran the show -- every show. For example, if you flew on his plane, he told you where you were sitting -- all of you. If you came to his party, he set the tone. No questions asked. Junior loves telling stories about his dad cutting it up at lake parties with Neil Bonnet, Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd. They would make T-shirts with goofy sayings on them and pass them out to partygoers. Then they'd raise an ample amount of hell.
But when it comes to the details of the day his father died, Junior is done.
"It's too personal," he said. "It doesn't make me sad. It doesn't make me upset. I just feel like I'm taking advantage of him in some way, and I don't want to do that."
In fact, the last thing Dale Jr. wants anyone, especially his dad's fans, to think is that he would ever take advantage of his father. Dale Earnhardt fans, Junior says, remain the most loyal, tightest group the sport has ever seen. The connection between them and Big E was very real and very honest and, Junior says, built on mutual respect, timing, circumstance and innate coincidences between the respective upbringings of the Man in Black and his legion.
It's simple, really. Dale was one of them.
"It was as if he could have lived in their neighborhood," Junior said, choosing his words carefully. "He could have worked in the town where they worked. Or it was as if he was a guy they saw at the gas station on the way to work, getting their coffee to go. It was a unique, tight bond that they felt with him. And he felt the same."
Kelley agreed, adding that her father paid special attention to that relationship.
"I think my dad's fans see him as a man's man," Kelley said. "He was like them, in terms of growing up blue collar and working for what he wanted, sacrificing for what he wanted to achieve. He was simply awesome, in all terms. He had a heart of gold, a heart of passion for what he did, and he did it well. He was personable and devoted a lot of attention to the fans who he felt made it possible for him to achieve success and be the best."
Dale Earnhardt was raised in the quaint southern mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., where the Cannon textile mill was king and hard work was a way of life. The people of Kannapolis called themselves "lint heads." Dale's father, Ralph Earnhardt, worked in that mill but ultimately quit to go racing and muscle self-built cars around countless rundown little tracks to keep food on the table. He was Dale's hero, and Dale inherited the same tough-love, no-frills approach to things.
By ninth grade Dale had had enough of school and dropped out. He was raw as sashimi but knew what he wanted and was unwilling to compromise in the quest to get it. He built a legend on will, determination and the unyielding desire to turn passion into profession.
Even when he was trolling around on "Sunday Money," his yacht, his fans still saw that lint head from Kannapolis.
"The person he became, the person he was, was very easy to respect and appreciate his morals, and he was very easy to cheer for because he was successful all the time," Junior said. "All these little things that were circumstantial, that made him this perfect, for lack of a better word, role model. It was just perfect, the way it worked out."
Junior idolized his father much like any other Dale Earnhardt fan did. He marveled at the man behind the wheel, the grit. The difference for Junior was the hero walked through his family's front door hours after he had conquered his nemeses.
"My favorite memory is probably The Winston in '87," Junior said of his father's epic duel with Bill Elliott in the all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I was there in condos in Turn 1, and I see the videos today. I realized it a little bit then, but I realize it more today how hard he had to try to win that race. Bill's car was so much faster. To be honest, a couple of the guys were just a bit quicker than dad, and he drove dirty. But he had to try so hard. I couldn't believe it.
"I've never in my life seen will and determination like that, and I probably never ... I mean, it's rare. That's one of those times that I look back and I'm like, man, there's no way he belonged in Victory Lane, there's no way he should have been able to win that race, but somehow he did. Bill had been blowing everybody away, and once Dad got that lead, man, he wasn't going to give it up at all costs."
Walk the line
That story sums up why no one ever had to question Dale Earnhardt's gumption. It was right out there in the open for the world to see in every lap he turned. He oozed it. Junior's personality is far more reserved, leading some folks to question his dedication.
Crew chief Steve Letarte is not one of those people. During the offseason, team owner Rick Hendrick made a drastic personnel move, sending three of his four crew chiefs to work with new drivers. Letarte, who had directed Jeff Gordon's No. 24 team since 2005, moved to Junior's 88.
"I judge him on a first-hand basis -- not on stories I've heard, not on stories you read in the media," Letarte said. "He's a true competitor, with a huge fire to compete and do so successfully. He's done everything I've asked. When I ask him to be somewhere, he's early. When I ask him about the car, he's focused.
That's one thing that frustrates me is to hear people today say I don't have passion, my heart's not in it. Man, what the hell? ... My heart's in it. I gave my heart to this sport a long damn time ago.
”-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"He is extremely intelligent, very smart and has a great personality. But he doesn't communicate as openly as I do. My wife says, 'That must be a great conversation. You talk a lot, and he listens a lot.' And he handles the pressure of the [Earnhardt] name better than anyone could imagine."
Junior isn't his father, never claimed to be. He says he feels no pressure there. From his perspective, he rarely faces unfair comparisons from fans, and when he does they aren't bothersome. What does bother him is the presumption that he doesn't care or his heart isn't in it anymore. Just because he doesn't wear it on his sleeve, he says, folks tend to get the wrong impression at times.
"That's one thing that frustrates me is to hear people today say I don't have passion, my heart's not in it. Man, what the hell? You can't go to 38 races in 42 weeks with your heart out of it. I'm gonna tell you that right now, you can't do it!" Junior said. "It'd be obvious. My heart's in it. I gave my heart to this sport a long damn time ago."
He does admit his demeanor has noticeably softened since his father died. He's not as cheery, not as happy or wild. Part of that is simple maturation and greater focus on the job. He says looks back at videos of himself periodically from the old Busch Series days, when he was winning often and living fast. He can't believe his glee. He'd shake his fist at the camera, scream at it, cut up, completely out of his mind to take the green flag.
He misses that kid, the genuine energy. With age, that fades away and is replaced by a greater understanding of the importance of the job. But that guy may still be in there somewhere.
"I think I was probably just overly excited because it was going a million times better than I thought," he said. "If I was to start winning races, I think that guy would probably come right back. I'm totally committed to being in this sport -- obviously an event like that can change your perspective on things, and it changed my personality. If you look at the videos from '98, '99 and look at the video after that, I'm not the same person."
Given what he's experienced, it's hard to believe anyone would be the same.
"I hate to keep going back to this, but I ain't seen one guy go through a situation like that and not come out different in his disposition," Junior said. "But I still love the sport, and I'd do anything for it. If I could do anything right now to make it better, that's what I'd be doing."
Whether your folks are here physically or not, they tend to keep you straight. The influence they have on your life never stops. These days Junior tries to use his father's passion and life lessons in positive ways.
He hears his old man's advice more in his personal life than his professional one. They rarely talked racing. The advice Big E gave Junior about wheeling a race car was minimal. But with real-life stuff -- girls, buddies, relationships, financial advice -- he thinks all the time about what his dad would say.
"Dale has matured into a business man over the last 10 years," Kelley said. "His personality has mellowed from those days of partying and having a good time to now. I think that happens with most people that age from 26 to 36.
"He still enjoys the good times but appreciates them in a different way than 10 years ago. He's more involved in decisions about his career, life and future in a more strategic manner than 10 years ago."
When Hendrick made that decision to shuffle his crew chiefs, Earnhardt got a new address -- the same building that houses five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. It has already had an impact.
"Those guys in that shop are all about business," Junior said, shifting forward in his seat. "They're used to winning. They like to win. They want to keep winning. I like that pressure, and that sense of entitlement to victory. I used to feel that way, like I belonged in Victory Lane. The last couple years, I ain't been able to feel that way."
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season, Junior has one victory and one Chase appearance (2008).
"He's a very successful race car driver -- 18 wins at the highest level," Letarte said. "That's elite company. That's a very small group of guys. Is he Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson? No. But he's a proven winner. Success for this venture comes in steps. We need to get him relevant again, week in and
week out. That's harder than it looks, but I'll be disappointed if we don't."
Junior added, "When I go in there and I look at them guys, I can tell they're like, 'Man, you better be ready to get on it.' They look at you like, 'You better carry your load.' I like it. Makes me feel like it's gonna inspire me and motivate me. I feel like, this is gonna be good. I look at it as a real great opportunity to turn things around for me."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.