Earn­hardt out­grew fa­ther’s shadow

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS -

By Jenna Fryer CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. » He was so shy, so skinny, not yet some­body.

It was around 1997 and Dale Earn­hardt Jr. was test­ing at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way, wear­ing an all­white fire­suit. Bobby Labonte was the star at the Alabama test that day, and all the me­dia crammed into Tal­ladega’s wood-pan­eled press room to talk to Labonte.

I’m not sure any­one talked to the Earn­hardt kid that day. Why would they? No­body had any idea what he was about to be­come.

In that mo­ment at Tal­ladega, he was just the son of NASCAR’s great­est hero, a rich kid get­ting a chance to shake down a car be­cause of his last name. Earn­hardt hadn’t ac­com­plished any­thing and NASCAR had no idea it had a fu­ture rock star in its midst.

Earn­hardt, it turned out, was not just a kid get­ting a break be­cause his fa­ther owned Dale Earn­hardt Inc. The Hall of Famer was tough on his kid, made him work hard, kept him hon­est — two traits Ju­nior has car­ried with him all the way un­til now, his fi­nal week as a full-time driver in NASCAR. Re­tire­ment awaits, and so does fa­ther­hood.

Earn­hardt started small, worked his way through the Xfin­ity Se­ries and be­came a two-time cham­pion. Then Earn­hardt grad­u­ated to the Cup level in 2000 in a seat owned by his dad with splashy spon­sor Bud­weiser and an ex­pen­sive mar­ket­ing cam­paign. Earn­hardt Jr. dyed his hair blonde, threw rau­cous par­ties at the Club E he’d built on his prop­erty, and Bud got him into the hottest par­ties and sport­ing events all over the coun­try.

Be­hind the wheel, he was a win­ner. The DEI cars were good back then, and Earn­hardt made it to vic­tory lane in just his sev­enth start. As his fan base be­gan to grow, he be­came a cult hero to the NASCAR fan and rec­og­niz­able to the ca­sual sports ob­server.

When his fa­ther was killed in an ac­ci­dent on the last lap of the Day­tona 500 the next sea­son, Earn­hardt’s world changed in ev­ery way. Now the spot­light was on him all the time, and with­out his fa­ther around to cast a dis­ap­prov­ing glare, Earn­hardt strug­gled. He was still shy, still had some in­se­cu­ri­ties, and wasn’t com­fort­able be­ing the guy forced to carry his fa­ther’s legacy.

Fast-for­ward to 2007 and Earn­hardt and his sis­ter, Kel­ley, were in a strained re­la­tion­ship with their fa­ther’s wife. They didn’t like the di­rec­tion Teresa Earn­hardt was tak­ing DEI, and he wanted 51 per­cent con­trol of the team in his con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions. Teresa Earn­hardt had also pub­licly ques­tioned her step­son’s com­mit­ment, and Earn­hardt painfully ad­mit­ted in a pre­sea­son news con­fer­ence that their re­la­tion­ship “ain’t a bed of roses.”

Four months later, he’d made his de­ci­sion to leave DEI. Earn­hardt took peo­ple who had cov­ered the bulk of his ca­reer into his of­fice and ex­plained to them, per­son­ally, why he was leav­ing. He feared what peo­ple would think of him, and he’d been raised to be hon­est and be­have pro­fes­sion­ally. Earn­hardt didn’t want any­one to think he was aban­don­ing his fa­ther’s team.

Off to Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports he went, and that wasn’t what any­one hoped. Rac­ing wasn’t fun, he was no longer get­ting along with the fam­ily mem­bers who had al­ways been part of his ca­reer and his per­for­mance was aw­ful.

It was Steve Le­tarte who took over as crew chief and re­built Earn­hardt. He held him ac­count­able with a strict sched­ule, de­manded Earn­hardt be present for de­briefs and team meet­ings, and he coached him back into a win­ning race car driver.

Earn­hardt will re­tire af­ter Sun­day’s sea­son fi­nale hav­ing never won a cham­pi­onship. He never filled his fa­ther’s shoes on the race track. But he won two Day­tona 500s and built an army of loyal fans.

He also set­tled into his own skin, found his voice on so­cial me­dia and be­came the so­cial con­science of NASCAR sim­ply by stat­ing his be­liefs and be­ing hon­est, as his fa­ther had taught him to be.

He took NASCAR to events and ap­pear­ances the sport had never ac­cessed be­fore, and he set­tled into a life with wife Amy, who brought him out his shell. She was by his side dur­ing a gru­el­ing re­cov­ery last sea­son from con­cus­sions, and the cou­ple will be­come first­time par­ents next year.

Earn­hardt is noth­ing at all like the kid try­ing to wedge his way into NASCAR two decades ago. But in many ways, the money and the fame and life­time of ex­pe­ri­ences hasn’t changed him at all.

All the adu­la­tion and the ac­com­plish­ments are be­cause of who Earn­hardt is, not be­cause of his lin­eage.


Dale Earn­hardt Jr. smiles dur­ing a me­dia avail­abil­ity be­fore Sun­day’s NASCAR Cup se­ries auto race at Texas Mo­tor Speed­way in Fort Worth, Texas, Fri­day.

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