Earnhardt Jr. understands, isn't beholden to, legacy

Updated: February 17, 2006, 7:58 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

The media ask it of him. NASCAR asks it of him. The fans do, too. All of us, all along. Prodding. Begging. Urging him to be someone else.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesEarnhardt Jr. admits it was comfortable being under his father's umbrella. Now he says he's comfortable out from under it.

From the moment his father died in Turn 4 of the last lap at the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was suffocated with expectations that he help get the sport through one of its most trying times, even if he was struggling to figure out how to get himself through the most devastating event in his life. Five years later, Junior shouldn't be measured by his 19th-place finish in last season's point standings or the fact that he hasn't yet won a championship.

Far better to admire the man who helped lift a sport from its knees while staying true to himself and managing to have a little fun along the way.

"It's just a blur," Junior said of the time that has passed since his father's death. "I don't take many mental notes as far as that goes. But, you know, I just want to get in the race car and race and have fun, get out of the race car, tend to my Busch team, tend to other activities we have going on, enjoy the experiences that I get from those, win a [Nextel] Cup championship, win more races, win those Daytona 500s, those type of races, those meaningful races, and be proud and satisfied with what I'm doing."

Ever since Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched his father's fatal crash through the rearview mirror of his No. 8 Chevrolet, the weight of NASCAR Nation has fallen on the son's shoulders. Nobody said it aloud -- not explicitly, at least. But he heard the calls, nonetheless. He felt the pressure, regardless.

Be like the Old Man, Junior. Help us heal.

That's what he hears when the media ask him when he'll jump in his dad's old No. 3 Chevy or whether he'll fill the role as garage-area statesman that has gone empty since his father's passing.

That's what he feels when NASCAR officials expect him to do things because his dad would have, like when they guilted him about not showing up to last year's postseason awards ceremony. They "pulled the Dale Earnhardt card on us," Junior recalled.

It's what he hears and what he feels from the fans, too, when they crowd around him, not with Dale Jr. hats or photos, but with his dad's memorabilia.

Can you sign your dad's old … ?

"It's OK to talk about him," Junior assures the world. "I don't mind talking about him. But there's some questions that are hard to -- not hard to answer, you just get tired of answering them. There's no real answer for them."

Somewhere along the way, though, that became Junior's job -- to answer the Earnhardt Unanswerable. It wasn't enough that he was just getting the hang of the sport as a sophomore racer the year his dad died. Paraded into the sport's elite level on a carriage drawn by Budweiser Clydesdales on the day the announcement of his ascent was made, Junior came into the deal with more fame than most of his peers could ever hope for.

Now, not only did he hold the hopes of fans who rooted for his name as much, if not more, as for his individuality but Junior also had to carry the torch and heal the wounds of an entire fan base in disbelief and grief.

He was asked to play the part of Big E before he even got a chance to figure out who Little E was.

"You got to give him credit for how he's handled himself under the circumstances," Jeff Gordon said. "I mean, here is a guy that came into the sport as the second-most-popular driver when he came in from Day One. … Living up to that name, his father's shadow, you know, it's got to be very difficult for him."

Yet the 31-year-old has traversed the muddied waters of learning a profession, exploring himself and dealing with the loss of his father with poise. On the track, he developed into a contender, finishing third and fifth in the point standings before a disappointing 2005 campaign.

But Junior's achievements are better measured off the track, where he has never sulked over the added pressure he was dealt or wondered how much easier things might have been for him if his father were still around.

After all, "it was hard to be Dale Jr. when Dad was around," he said, smiling. "Still tough. A lot of advantages. I had a lot of fun. Wouldn't trade it for anything."

Why can't you be more like your dad?

Junior has gotten better at ignoring the constant queries.

Junior said he wouldn't even trade the fame he never felt he had earned in the first place. Although his performance eventually did catch up to the following he inherited in NASCAR by virtue of his name, there is also a responsibility that comes with being a racing Earnhardt. Junior knows that, but he refuses to be an ungrateful athlete.

"Fame is never a burden," he said. "Fame is a lot of fun. Fame gets you to boxing matches, football games and cool stuff."

That Junior takes advantage of those boxing matches and football games and "cool stuff" is just one of the many things that distinguish him from his father. The way he carries himself as a NASCAR driver is another big difference, though. That he has never -- despite everyone's request -- tried to change himself to fit his father's mold is, in itself, a testament to the Earnhardt name.

Sure, Junior is primarily concerned with his career and his No. 8 car, whereas his father seemed to feel at ease carrying his own team while at the same time carrying a banner for NASCAR. And although his father seemed consumed by racing, Junior branches out and lives a more mainstream celebrity's life. But, like his old man, he does things his way. He doesn't take requests when it comes to how to live life.

"I'm my own person," he said. "You know, I think [Dad] respected that."

Junior's individuality manifests itself in his racing persona. He is the heir to his father's throne -- that throne being, of course, the seat of the black No. 3 Chevy Monte Carlo that hammered and harassed the competition for nearly two decades. But he doesn't want to be the man in black before he can finish exploring his own identity first. He doesn't care whether it would be cool to pay tribute to his father in the fifth year after the tragic accident.

He didn't let the world dictate his life before, and he's not starting now.

"We could [win a championship in that car] now, but that would be just kind of a phony tribute if we did it now," he said. "It just wouldn't feel right. I think it's something we can do whenever we want. I've got to take my career seriously right now. I can't be fooling around with tributes and feel-good stories all the time. You know, we got to get down to business and race. When that opportunity comes to have that chance, we'll do that."

That Junior was able to become a contender at NASCAR's highest level in the wake of his father's death was amazing. That he continues to develop his own personality in the shadow of his father's looming legacy, though, is much more impressive. It might not have been what everyone around him was asking for, but it might just have been what everyone hurting from the death of Dale Earnhardt needed.

"I think his father would be tremendously proud of him," said Michael Waltrip, Junior's former teammate and Earnhardt Sr.'s good friend. "Junior never compromised himself [after Earnhardt's death], and that's something I know Dale would have been real proud of. That's something I admire him for."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.

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