Winston Cup Scene
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mark Ashenfelter received the coveted 2002 Russ Catlin Award for Excellence in Motorsports Journalism in the Print -- Non-Daily category for this story. It was the third Catlin for a Winston Cup Scene writer, and the first since Deb Williams won it in 1991.
By Mark Ashenfelter
He’s done Leno and Letterman. Had his story told in Rolling Stone. Bared his soul in a provocative Playboy interview.
He’s been the focus of a show on MTV, which also toured his home for another of its programs. He’s been in music videos and even sat in with a band.
He’s been a celebrity guest at the Major League All-Star game, hanging out with the likes of Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa.
Oh yeah. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also drives a stock car once in a while. He does that so well, in fact, that he’s considered a contender for the 2002 Winston Cup championship.
Others, though, tend to discount Junior’s title aspirations, insinuating that he’s not yet mature enough to win the crown. After all, the reasoning goes, he’s far too busy living the good life to take racing seriously.
The funny thing is, those who say that seem to be the ones who know the least about Dale Earnhardt Jr. Those associated with him paint a different picture, pointing out that while his baseball cap may be on backward, his head appears to be on straight.
Earnhardt Jr. may be busy taking NASCAR to the proverbial “next level,” but that doesn’t mean he’s not keeping a level head in the process.
The son of a seven-time Winston Cup champion, Junior represents many things to many people. To some, he’s the anointed one, the only driver capable of carrying on his late father’s legacy.
Two Busch Series championships in his only full years in the division just raised expectations. Victories as a Winston Cup rookie only increased the hype. Not only would Earnhardt Jr. win and win big, he’d do it in a style all his own.
Junior’s titles wouldn’t have to come in a hurry, either. After all, his father seemed destined to claim an eighth championship before his namesake ascended to the throne.
That, of course, all changed last February when the elder Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500. Instead of sharing a small portion of his father’s spotlight, Junior was thrust to the forefront as never before.
With little time to grieve, he was back in the driver’s seat six days after his father’s death. just two days after a nationally televised memorial service. Now, not only were the sport’s hard-core fans watching his every move, so were those who were introduced to Earnhardt Jr. only after getting caught up in the groundswell surrounding his father’s death.
The sudden attention didn’t break Earnhardt Jr., though. If anything, it made him stronger.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
People always want to know what a celebrity is like. In Earnhardt Jr.’s case, the answer is a moving target, one the driver can’t always pin down from moment to moment.
One of the easiest things to forget is that, at 27, Junior finds himself caught between youthful exuberance and the urge to settle down.
At times, he feels he’s come a long way personally. Then he changes his mind.
“There’s days when I wake up and I’m just disappointed that I haven’t improved more,” Junior says matter of factly. “Some days I feel like I do a good job representing myself and my sponsors and my sport and some days I feel like I fall short. Today, I feel like I’m right at level ground.”
Honesty is one aspect where Junior sets himself apart from many of his peers. It’s not that other drivers lie, they just reveal very little of themselves in public.
“I don’t know why more people aren’t just honest all the time. I like to know where I stand with people, whether I’m on a date with a girl or whether I’m hanging out with my friends,” he says. “I want to know where I’m at and I want to know what the deal is. I try to give people that and maybe I get it in return. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.”
While comfortable with his teammates, fans and the press, Junior is most at home hanging with longtime friends he grew up with in Mooresville, N.C., a group he calls “the Dirty Mo Posse.”
Others have joined his circle of friends, including Busch Series regular Hank Parker Jr. The two met long before either knew they’d drive race cars for a living. Both sons of famous fathers, they got to know each other on hunting trips years ago. The friendship only intensified once Parker Jr. reached the Busch Series.
Earnhardt Jr ., who writes a column for several media outlets, recently made Parker Jr. one of his subjects, talking about his friend’s impending wedding.
“When I look at a movie star, I wonder what they’re like. I’m sure there’s a lot of race fans that look at him and wonder what he’s like,” Parker Jr. says. “Really, what you see is what you get. He’s a very genuine person. If he says he’s going to do something, he will. That’s neat, because you know what you’re dealing with.”
While comparisons with his father on the race track are unfair at this stage of his career, it seems Junior inherited at least one off-the-track trait. After the elder Earnhardt’s death, many stepped forward to tell of the good deeds he had done for them, with the one stipulation being that they kept it private.
“He really looks out for other people. He’s done a lot for me and helped me in my career,” Parker Jr. says of Junior. “He’s given me advice. One time at Dover, he gave me the shocks off his car so I could make the race. He’s talked to people for me to help me get jobs. There’s nothing he won’t do - that’s just part of being him.
“When he does things, they make him happy as well. That’s kind of his reward out of it. It’s a lot of fun hanging out with him, because he’s pretty lax and has a good time. His friends come first.”
I don’t know why more people aren’t just honest all the time. I like to know where I stand with people, whether I’m on a date with a girl or whether I’m hanging out with my friends. – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And that may be the reason some reach the conclusion that Junior is nowhere close to being an adult. Everyone has their circle of friends, but few enjoy having them with them in public as Earnhardt Jr. does. They celebrated with him when he won the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last July and he saluted them during his speech at the Winston Cup banquet.
If you’re not paying close attention, it almost seems as if Junior goes out of his way to leave the impression that he’s simply an overgrown kid with a fast car as his toy.
Kelley Earnhardt knows better. Besides being his sister, she also serves as his business manager. She knows Dale Jr. better than anyone and thinks there are times when those in the media looking for an easy angle hang their stories on her brother’s maturity, or perceived lack thereof.
“I don’t think he intentionally does things to hide his maturity,” Kelley Earnhardt says. “But I think the media takes a twist on it because he is so open about his life and what he likes as a 27 year old that they take that and try to create a story out of it. I think he’s completely in control of his thoughts and actions at all times.
“He’s just a 27-year-old young man who loves computers, loves cars, likes to go out and have a good time and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think people in general want to mature him beyond where he is. I think they expect (too much). If you look at it, he’s only been racing four years in the Busch and Cup Series (combined). Especially due to the death of our father, they have pushed him even further into his maturity as a racer and expect so much more out of him.
“If you take away his name and take away the events of the past year, he’s no different than a Matt Kenseth or some of the other young drivers in what they should be expecting. It’s just a story because people are putting him in a higher place than he ought to have to be in, personally.”
If Junior were as immature as some like to paint him, it’s doubtful he’d have won three races and finished eighth in points in 2001. Kelley, though, sees his growth away from the track.
A pitfall of stardom is that some people who started out as your friends often become fixated on your money and feel they’ve earned a share of it simply by being there. Professional athletes have dealt with such issues for years, some more successfully than others. Last season, Earnhardt Jr. realized some tough choices needed to be made.
“You learn from being around the wrong crowd and being around the right crowd - you figure that out pretty quick,” he says. “You have to make changes. You have to spend a lot of time around certain people and really get to know a lot of different people and their personalities. About (five) months ago, I brought my sister in to my company and she’s kind of really looking out for me.
“You’ve just got to be around people you can trust. My dad liked to be around his family, his friends that he grew up with. You form a working relationship with them and it’s quite a terribly difficult task to maintain a friendship on the weekends and a working relationship from 8 to 5 during the week. You’ve just got to be a firm boss and he was always real good at that.”
Until last year, Junior wasn’t one to say no to those who seemed to be his friends.
“For so many years, it was just whatever I had to do to just try to please everybody,” he says. “But in the past year I’ve gotten more personally out of just being honest about what I wanted and what I expected from everybody than just to try to say whatever it took to get everybody happy. I’m happier just saying, ‘Look man, I’m not comfortable with this situation,’ instead of just following through with it.”
The question, then, is where does he go from here. It’s an answer he’s eager to learn, but only in due time.
“People change and I’m sure to change as well. Three years from now I might be married and have a kid - you never know - and I definitely won’t be dressing like this,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of things that I want to do, a lot of things that I look forward to doing that are definitely more responsible type things that you probably wouldn’t find in my vocabulary (currently).
“I’m trying to look at buying some land. I want to build a house, (or) maybe I want to add on to the house I’ve got. I’m trying to improve this, improve that. Maybe I want to go shopping and buy some slacks. I don’t know. Sometimes you just feel like doing something different.
“I want to grow up a little bit, but I feel pretty comfortable in these shoes.”
SHOW OF STRENGTH
Kenny Wallace knew Junior would overcome his father’s death as soon as he saw an interview Junior did the day his father died. It was only a comment or two, but the simple fact he did the interview spoke volumes.
It also led Wallace to make an unlikely comparison, but one that’s not as farfetched as it seems.
“I totally look at Junior right now (and) sometimes I feel bad for him, because he’s no different than John F. Kennedy Jr.,” Wallace says. “His father was so great, so big and so legendary. I think he knows what he’s in for for the rest of his life, whether he wants it or not. I think Junior’s no different right now than JFK Jr. (was) or Prince William and Harry.”
When Junior showed up at Rockingham for the first race after his father’s death, Wallace was impressed that he didn’t hide in his motorcoach. Instead, Earnhardt Jr. sought out his fellow competitors, letting them know things were OK.
If it lifted their spirits, that was fine. Earnhardt Jr., though, simply wanted to be amongst friends.
“I couldn’t wait to get in the garage and be around people that know what’s going on. Out of everybody in the world at that time, those drivers and crew members were the ones who knew the most about the situation,” Junior says. “They knew the most about what loss we just had. I felt the most comfortable around them and couldn’t wait to be around them.
“I got to the track early just to be in the (motorcoach) lot to be around Kenny and (Ken) Schrader and the Burtons, just be around people that drive and know what I do and know what my Dad did and know why he did it and why he risked his life doing it. (I did it) to get away from the people wanting to know why and what and asking all the questions. That’s why we kept racing. That’s where we felt the most comfortable.”
While being at the track simply felt natural to Earnhardt Jr., he still impressed many of his friends and fellow competitors.
“I don’t know how I’d do anything like that if I was in his shoes,” Parker Jr. says. “He went on and I’m sure that’s what his father would have wanted him to do. At the hardest time, he just pulled it together and shined.”
I don’t think he intentionally does things to hide his maturity. But I think the media takes a twist on it because he is so open about his life and what he likes as a 27 year old that they take that and try to create a story out of it. I think he’s completely in control of his thoughts and actions at all times. – Kelley Earnhardt
Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon is considered the gold standard when it comes to handling the media. While many credit Junior for taking the sport to Generation X, Gordon’s polish is credited for taking NASCAR to Madison Avenue. Still, Gordon was in awe of how Dale Jr. handled the media circus surrounding his father’s death.
“I saw Dale mature beyond what I thought he was capable of. I think he surprised a lot of us,” Gordon says. “There’s no doubt he’s still a kid at heart - and you have to love him for that, too - but I think we saw him mature to a whole new level. I don’t think I could have handled that the way he handled it. I think the attention, the pressure, the questions that he was being faced with, had to be unbearable. And I thought he did a tremendous job with it.”
Dale Jr. has made it clear that he’s looking forward to returning to Daytona for this year’s Daytona 500. He made his peace with the track last July and says he wishes the circuit raced there more than twice a season.
He knows others will get emotional at the first anniversary of his father’s passing, but Junior is taking it in stride.
“Once we pull out of Daytona, it’s really, really, really going to be some closure,” he says. “If there ever is (going to be closure), that will be the day.”
A MARKETER’S DREAM
Junior’s hard-charging father was the first to tap into the vast marketing potential of NASCAR. But while he let his driving do the talking, his son has played a major part in the evolution of an entirely new fan base.
Just by being himself and saying whatever’s on his mind, Junior gained new fans with a flat-out interview in Playboy that likely caused some of NASCAR’s old guard to squirm, just as his Rolling Stone profile two years ago irked his father. That doesn’t faze Dale Jr. in the slightest.
And while promoting beer has long been a trademark of the sport, his upcoming ad campaign for Drakkar Noir, a high-end fragrance line, will likely raise a few more eyebrows. But before he signs on to endorse any product, he makes sure the advertisers understand just what they’re getting.
“We can do a lot of great promotions and have a lot of fun, but I’m not turning my hat around for nobody,” he jokes. That alone makes him stand out from his peers.
“I might not represent the average mold for a NASCAR driver, but we’re able to go to certain areas and certain people, particularly (on) the West Coast, and show ourselves and the sport to some interesting people,” Junior says. “I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about whether I’m one of the guys to represent the sport, but maybe that’s why I pressure myself to just be myself.
“I get a lot of flack from my sponsor for not having their logo all over my back, my shoulders and my head, but walking around in a pair of Adidas is pretty cool to me. I want everyone to know that’s who I am. If you don’t mind that guy that represents the sport wearing an Adidas (shirt) and a hat backwards, that’s fine. If you do mind it, look somewhere else.”
I totally look at Junior right now (and) sometimes I feel bad for him, because he’s no different than John F. Kennedy Jr. His father was so great, so big and so legendary. I think he knows what he’s in for for the rest of his life, whether he wants it or not. I think Junior’s no different right now than JFK Jr. (was) or Prince William and Harry. – Kenny Wallace
Junior believes that’s why some fans support him so loyally. Just as his father was comfortable in jeans and cowboy boots, Dale Jr. is going to wear whatever he chooses.
To do otherwise would be selling out, and he doesn’t believe that does a sponsor any good.
“I think we can go further just by being ourselves,” he says. “I think people will be more interested in that than a billboard.”
The scary thing is, Earnhardt Jr. knows he could do even more endorsements. But when things seem to be getting out of control, he asks members of his “posse” if he’s bordering on overexposure.
When they tell him yes, he takes the advice seriously. And truth be told, Earnhardt Jr. only wants to get so big.
“It’s very easy to get kind of big-headed and lose perspective of who you are and what you like and what you don’t like,” he says. “I like being at home and spending time there and spending time with my friends. I don’t really enjoy traveling that much.
“We have a lot of things that we do, maybe it’s Jay Leno, maybe it’s Letterman or something and you go to New York or LA and you see the lifestyles these people live and it’s kind of easy to feel like that you could be a part of that. I’ve decided that maybe I don’t want to be a part of that. Maybe I want to live in Mooresville the rest of my life.
"Even though I might be on the cover of a magazine every once in a while, I’m still that guy that lives in that house in Mooresville. I want a piece of the pie, but I don’t want all of it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. may never approach his father’s record-tying seven championships, but as long as he secures at least one crown, he’ll consider his career fulfilled.
No matter how much fun there is to be had simply being Junior, he wants more. Maybe it’s the perspective that comes with time, but he no longer wants to be just another driver - or a marketer’s dream come true.
“There’s more to me, I think, professionally than just magazine covers, kick-ass sponsors and fun times. I want to win championships," says Junior, who wants the title for more than just the wild party that’s sure to follow. “There’s something to be said about that asterisk beside your name for the rest of your life and the rest of time in the (record) book that says you were a champion some time in your life.
“That’s something that I would like to be a part of. I think I’m a good race car driver and I can see that I have a great opportunity to really take it to another set of levels: to be somebody that is in the same sentence with several other greats in the sport down the road. So I need to win some championships to make that further proof.”
Championships weren’t part of the plan when Earnhardt Jr. first started taking racing seriously. Now that that’s changed, he admits to being afraid of setting goals that seemed far too ambitious at the time.
“When I started racing in the Busch Series, started racing in the Winston Cup Series, I really didn’t put a lot of credit and value in winning races and being a champion,” he says. “It was probably a self-defense mechanism just because in case I failed, I didn’t let myself down. Or I didn’t disappoint myself.
“Now that I feel like I’m capable of doing these things, I put a little more prominent effort toward it, a little more value in it and everything I do to get there. Winning Busch championships ain’t no small thing, but the first one, we were like, ‘Yeah, this is cool. Big deal.’ We kind of laughed it off. But now I look back at winning two in a row, I’m real proud of it. It’s more of a statement, more prominent to me now than when it was happening.
“I think once it all comes together, if we ever do win a Winston Cup championship, that it will really be something huge for me.”
Junior says he feels his team is strong at 75 percent of the tracks he’ll visit this year, but he knows improvement is needed on the road courses and short tracks.
As for those who say he also needs to improve his commitment and show more maturity, Junior has an answer ready.
“I’m not doing anything that anybody else ain’t doing,” he said referring to his fellow drivers. “I just don’t keep it so private. I don’t hide it from everybody. I do it responsibly. I know when I need to straighten my (butt) up if I’ve got a race to run .... I think I’ve got my head on straight.”
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