E.A. Sports Today

Junior lets his guard down

[corner-ad id=2]It’s a retrospective Earnhardt who takes the checkered flag at Talladega

By Matthew Gruber
For East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – Fresh off an emotional victory at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat in the Ken Patterson Infield Media Center appearing markedly different than when he last won here in 2004.

Junior, who is now amazingly 40, sounded at once exhausted, elated, thoughtful, relieved, grateful and more than a little humbled after his sixth Talladega Cup win and the 24th of his 16-year Cup career.

He was also feeling particularly sentimental after a long day on NASCAR’s most stressful track. Junior spoke at length about his successes, his failures, his crew chief, his girlfriend, and his time as a child growing up in the garage.

But, as usual, the subject came back to Big E.

“I feel like we have a lot of supporters here because of dad’s success,” Junior said. “He won so many races here.

“I don’t really get to think about him all that much … Today made me think about his birthday (April 29) and how much I miss him, how much he meant to me and to so many more people … I can’t even fathom the number of folks that he had a relationship with in this sport.”

After lean years on the track even as his popularity off it skyrocketed, Junior seems to have found peace at last, both behind the wheel and in his personal life.

He talked about being “miserable” without his girlfriend Amy, who stayed home this weekend to work on projects around the couple’s home.

“She’s made my life a whole lot more enjoyable and showed me how to have fun and showed me a lot more to life,” Earnhardt said. “Everything is in the right direction. Everybody is happy. I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but I feel real lucky because that’s the case.”

It wasn’t always that way. Dale Jr. was forced overnight to go from being the brash, cocky kid with the backward cap and two-toned blonde-and-black haircut to the hope of the largest fanbase in NASCAR after the sudden death of his father, Dale Sr., on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Junior, who always managed to seem both shy and outgoing, for a time retreated as much as he could to his inner circle of friends, but then seemingly came back with a vengeance. The wins came in bunches at first, with Junior and DEI-teammate Michael Waltrip dominating restrictor plate races in particular, and top-5 points finishes followed. Junior, though privately struggling to find himself in his father’s shadow, seemed to be on a roll professionally.

Then, even that was taken away, as his career hit a lull. He lost a struggle for control of DEI to his estranged stepmother, Teresa, and ultimately left the team his father built for powerhouse Hendrick Racing.

As the pressure to perform mounted from both his critics and fans alike, Junior seemed to wilt. At times on his in-car radio, he sounded as though there was nowhere he wanted to be less than on the race track. His confidence – and his performance – tanked.

Junior experienced a renaissance in 2014, winning the Daytona 500 and sweeping the two races at Pocono. He qualified for the Chase and was in contention until a run of bad luck ended his season.

He was brutally – almost uncomfortably – honest in his appraisal of his career. At times, Earnhardt seemed to carry the support of his fans not as a badge of honor but rather as a tremendous burden. And there is a part of Earnhardt that feels undeserving of his career.

“I think the part I don’t feel like I deserve is the racing side of it,” he said. “There’s just not many second chances. I feel like if my name wasn’t Earnhardt that I wouldn’t have had a second chance. I feel like I owe my second chance to my dad – his legacy – because the way I ran from 2009 through those years, I feel I didn’t deserve to be kept around or hung on to.”

Perhaps there is more to Junior’s enduring popularity than his famous last name. Earnhardt paused several times on his way out of the media center to sign autographs and pose for photos with the handful of fans and track workers who had slipped in.

After walking outside, a boy of about 8 years old boldly approached the race winner and asked, “Dale, can I interview you for my school paper?” Junior took a seat in the back of an over-sized golf cart, patted the seat next to him and said “Hop on!”

Without hesitation, the young man jumped into the seat, and the golf cart sped off into the fading sun.

Matthew Gruber is a freelance writer from Florence.

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