- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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He's lived a princely lifestyle up to now, sippin' on a Bud and hangin' with rock stars, chillin' in his crib for everyone to see on MTV, and then cruisin' around in his renowned personal collection of souped-up and tricked-out four-wheel daily rides.
But like a young man who puts away the toys of his youth for one final time as he ascends into adulthood, all good things must come to an end. Party time is over for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The man who has been NASCAR's royal prince the last few years has proved himself ready to ascend to its throne. It's time for Dale Jr. to stake his claim to being stock car racing's king.
That's a heady statement to make for such a lofty position, but Junior has quietly and methodically been laying the groundwork to become the sport's No. 1 figurehead for well over a year now.
The foundation started on a very negative note, when Little E came out and revealed in September 2002 that he had been driving for nearly four months while still suffering the aftereffects of a concussion he sustained in California that April. The resulting fallout and criticism was merciless, with fans, media and even fellow drivers chiming in to blast the driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy.
Since then, Little E has slowly and quietly grown into manhood. He's gotten rid of many of his toys, toned down his partying and hanging with rock stars, sold his "crib" and built a more staid and quiet home away from fans and temptation, has taken on the responsibility of owning and operating a full-time Busch Series team with Martin Truex Jr. as the driver, and has a much more serious attitude and approach to Cup racing entering the 2004 campaign.
The key transition began last season, when an obviously more focused and mature-acting Earnhardt showed up at Daytona for the season-opening 500. He talked about focus, about how he feels he matured, and yes, the lessons he learned from the concussion debacle. But what's more important, he backed up what he said with his actions and results during the season.
Sure, he still may occasionally skip shaving and walk around with a scraggly beard for a day or two, bum around in hip-hop pants and baggy sweatshirts and wear his ball cap backward, but more often than not Earnhardt is wearing that same cap in much the same way he's approaching racing: on straight and in the right direction.
This is not a newfound attitude. Rather, it's something that's been deep within Earnhardt's soul for his whole life. It's taken the tragedy of his father's death, the concussion imbroglio, bitter disappointment at times on the racetrack and just enough success to make him all the more hungrier for more triumphs and accolades to bring him to where he is today, a serious and focused racer.
Just look at last season. While Matt Kenseth was virtually unstoppable and next to impossible to catch, it was his longtime buddy who proved the most capable of foes. For it was Junior, battled Kenseth in the Busch Series, that was the most successful driver when it came to nipping at the eventual champ's heals during the course of last season.
From the moment Kenseth took over the No. 1 spot after the fourth race of the season in Atlanta, Earnhardt was ranked right behind him in the No. 2 spot for 19 of the following 32 weeks. No other driver even came close. And had it not been for a few bobbles in the final two races after he won his second race of the season at Phoenix, Earnhardt would likely have held off Jimmie Johnson and finished second to Kenseth rather than third.
As we prepare for the 46th running of the Daytona 500 -- the biggest stock car race in the world -- there's even a greater sense of urgency for Little E to step up and begin emulating his late father, who lost his life three years ago at Daytona International Speedway.
That sense of urgency is something none of us can control -- time. For as hip-hop as he used to act, for as playful and foolish and fun-loving as he once was, Junior will hit a significant milestone on Oct. 10. Not only will he be taking the green flag that day at Kansas Speedway, he'll also turn 30 that same day.
And if there's ever a point in a man's life where he realizes it's time to get serious about his life's work, it's when he hits the big 3-0. Junior is now entering his fifth full season as a Cup racer. By the time his father had turned 30, he already had won the first of seven Winston Cup championships -- and in only his second full season of Cup racing.
Perhaps Junior has realized he has a lot of time to catch up on and a lot of work still to accomplish. If he is ever to not only walk in his father's footsteps, but to create his own steps for someone else to walk in some day, Little E has to begin on that path this season. There's no reason why he can't: he has one of the strongest teams and organizations in the Cup Series around him.
And while others like Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and yes, even old buddy and defending champ Kenseth will be going for that first Nextel Cup crown just as hard as he'll be, Junior has the talent, support and power to be the one guy everyone else has to get past.
His father was notorious for blocking opponents and casting them aside much like swatted flies. Will this be the year Junior lives up to the "like father, like son" heritage? Will he be the biggest roadblock of all in everyone else's championship path? Will he swat opponents out of the way in much the same manner "like my daddy did," as he's fond of saying?
Up to now, Junior has lived a prince's life, both on and off the racetrack. But the time has come for the king's son to step up and fill that empty throne seat his father once occupied.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
The 2004 Cup season might be when Dale Earnhardt Jr. lives up to the hype as NASCAR's best driver.