- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants a family. He wants to mature a little more and be a better man.
Most of all, he wants to step out of his father's shadow and be free to focus on his own career.
In the year since Dale Earnhardt died in a wreck on the final lap of the Daytona 500, his 27-year-old son has made peace with his passing and figured out who he's supposed to be.
"When my dad was here, I could just about do whatever I wanted to and get away with a lot of things. I always had him to fall back on," Earnhardt said. "He always had a way to laugh it off. Now … I don't have anything else to fall back on but how well I do it. That's going to reflect on me instead of my father."
He was representing his father yesterday when he drove a No.3 Chevrolet Earnhardt Sr.'s famous number to victory in the Busch race at Daytona. He entered the race to fulfill one of his father's sponsor commitments and ended up celebrating in the winners circle.
"No.3 is back in Victory Lane," he said, surrounded by Earnhardt's widow and car owner Richard Childress. "I know my Daddy would be happy."
Junior, as he's commonly called, looks every bit a Gen-Xer on the outside. His hat is always on backward, his pants are baggy and his sunglasses are a constant. He has a goatee and usually about two days' growth surrounding that. And he has a reputation as a party boy.
But he's so much more complicated than that. He's a deep thinker, internalizing everything. He's private, a little guarded and worries he'll never meet the right woman.
He looks around the track and sees women interested only in his fame and money. He's jealous of the happiness enjoyed by his recently married friends, Busch series drivers Hank Parker Jr. and Lyndon Amick.
Junior wonders if he'll ever find that kind of love, if he'll ever marry and have a son who will grow up watching his daddy race the same way Junior did, even if it usually was from afar.
"I look at Hank and Lyndon and I can't fool myself into thinking that I don't envy what they've got and the future that they're going to have," he said. "It would be nice to be a part of that with somebody.
"I definitely want to have a little son that I can take to the racetrack when he's old enough to know what's going on. I don't want to be retired by then."
A year ago, a wife and son were the furthest things from his mind. Then, he was just a race car driver, living in his father's shadow and trying desperately to meet his high standards and gain his approval.
For many years he wasn't close to the Intimidator, spending part of his high school time at military school. But they eventually bonded through racing, which gave them a link in their different lifestyles.
Then, just when the relationship had developed the way Junior wanted, his father was gone, killed on the final turn of the Daytona 500 while his son was racing on ahead of him.
In an instant, everything changed. Junior had new responsibilities and no one to tell him how to handle them. So he does the only thing he can, often thinking about how his father would want him to do things and sometimes even hearing his voice.
"I've got a lot of advice from my father that I still fall back on and probably rely on that more so than ever," he said.
He has an unspoken understanding with his stepmother, Teresa, who runs the Earnhardt empire. She never needs to ask when something's bothering him. Junior said she just knows.
"She's not a really an open type of person that would show a lot of emotion," he said. "But she knows what I'm thinking most of the time, which is a good thing. If she knows something is bothering me, we don't have to talk about it."
There's also a bond with fellow driver Tony Stewart, of all people. The two are complete opposites in everything and aren't friends to the point where they hang out together.
But as NASCAR's most popular driver, Junior can look across the motorhome lot and give a knowing nod to Stewart, one of the most reviled in the sport.
"It's kind of like we have an understanding of what each other is dealing with," Junior said. "He knows the tension that I go through, and I know what he's dealing with and the backlash that he got last year. It's so easy to foul up like that and slip and make a mistake and all hell breaks loose right in your face. It's unfair."
It's created a connection on the track, where the two aren't afraid to hook up and draft with each other. They've been doing that all week at Daytona they crossed the finish line 1-2 when Stewart won the non-points race here last weekend and are expected to bully their way around the track together in today's season-opening Daytona 500.
He's considered one of the favorites to win the race, something it took his father 20 years to do. The Daytona 500 was always Earnhardt's nemesis, the one winner's circle he never could drive his way into. When he finally did in 1998, all of NASCAR celebrated.
Junior doesn't want to wait that long.
"I don't want to be still trying to get it 18 years from now," he said. "To have an opportunity in my third year is a good feeling."
And he wants to win at least one championship although seven would be even better because that's what his father did.
Still, Junior has many doubters.
No matter how good a driver he is and his father used to joke with him that at 23, maybe Junior was better than he was at that age few think he's serious enough to do it.
He doesn't understand it.
Sure he likes to have fun, hit the party scene and hang with his friends. But he's a race car driver, after all, and racers run to win. Why can't he do both?
"There's some people in racing or whatever it may be that can really sink everything they've got into it and just be totally dedicated to it and it works," he said. "It might work for them, but that's not the way I want to live my life.
"I've only got one. It ain't like I can do it over again. I'm going to do it the way I want to do it."

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