- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more complicated than he appears.

Sure, Junior loves to party with his friends, hang out with Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down and appear in commercials ? “they ain’t too much work,” he says. Even he admits he’s “all about fun.”

But Little E is also a serious competitor, ready to make his own mark on the world conquered by his late father.

Going into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr., who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his father started, isn’t yet in his old man’s class on the racetrack.

The elder Earnhardt, who died in a last lap crash in the 2001 run of NASCAR’s biggest event, won seven championships during the Winston Cup era of the stock car sport. The swaggering, mustachioed Intimidator was a presence in NASCAR from the start to the end of his career. He was Rookie of the Year in 1979, won his first series title the next season and was still a contender when he died.

The last of Earnhardt’s 76 victories came in the fall race at Talladega in 2000, when he charged through the field in the waning laps for a seemingly impossible win.

“There was really nobody else like him,” Junior said wistfully. “He was awesome.”

The younger Earnhardt, beginning his fifth full season in NASCAR’s top series, would love to be like his father — at least on the racetrack, where he has nine victories in his four seasons in NASCAR’s top series.

Off the track, the two are nothing alike. Earnhardt Sr. was a businessman, a family man, a dedicated hunter and fisherman and as likely to spend his rare off days on a tractor pushing dirt around the fields around his sprawling North Carolina home as fishing from his 74-foot boat, “Sunday Money.”

Junior, a very eligible 29-year-old bachelor, would rather spend his time with a pretty girl on his arm backstage at a rock concert, surfing the Web, playing computer games or eating late-night fast food with his friends.

“I’m still in my 20s, and I enjoy my life,” he said. “I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anybody. I just feel fortunate to have the opportunity to drive race cars and just enjoy it.”

But far more is expected of the driver in whom Budweiser invested $10million before he had driven in a Cup event. Junior has built a sizable cadre of fans that includes many of the people who idolized his father, as well as a hip, younger crowd that loves it when Earnhardt wears his baseball caps backward and sports roguish stubble on his chin.

So, is Junior concerned that he is letting those people down each year he does not win a championship?

“I used to worry about these things,” he said. “I guess as I get a little bit older and a little bit smarter, it doesn’t worry me as much. I just know I’m trying to get better and be successful.”

Junior won Busch Series championships in 1998 and 1999 before moving up to Cup, where Matt Kenseth beat him out in 2000 for Rookie of the Year.

Last year, while the less popular and considerably quieter Kenseth was dominating the season points on the way to his first championship, Earnhardt also had his best season, finishing third in the points.

As far as Junior is concerned, that improvement showed he is ready to become a champion and step into the leadership role that he believes is expected of him.

“Our team has gotten better every year, and I just think that’s going to continue,” he said. “I think we have the equipment and the people to win championships now. Everything just has to come together.”

Three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, now a TV analyst for Fox Sports, loved racing against Dale Sr. and would love to see Junior reach his huge potential.

“There’s nobody in the sport right now who has more charisma,” Waltrip said. “All Junior needs is maybe a little more concentration and dedication to the job to be a champion. His father was very single-minded in whatever he did. I think Junior has other things that sometimes get in the way of his job.”

Earnhardt Jr. says he’s willing to pay the price for success.

“I’ve learned that no matter how fast you go on the track, you can’t ever think it’s your best lap,” he said. “In this business, nothing is ever good enough. That’s what makes a champion.”

And he doesn’t regret the attention and expectations that come with being an Earnhardt.

“It’s a lot of fun even though sometimes it’s a little overwhelming,” Junior said. “I could never have anticipated what’s happening now. My name has opened a lot of doors for me. I never wished I was somebody else. I’m all about making it fun and trying to enjoy it.”

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