EARN­HARDT

Yuma Sun - - SUN SPORTS -

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 first-time 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.

“I read some­thing on Twit­ter the other day about my brother, he said he has al­ways lived un­der Dad’s shadow and that is not such a bad thing,” Earn­hardt said. “I don’t know that you are al­ways out from un­der it, but it didn’t bother me, but I was al­ways com­pared to him and com­pared to his suc­cess, the per­son he was, peo­ple ei­ther liked I was dif­fer­ent or didn’t like that I was dif­fer­ent and wanted me to be just like him or what­ever.

“It was of­ten in con­ver­sa­tion or part of the topic of con­ver­sa­tion in ar­ti­cles and so forth. I re­ally don’t know when that started to hap­pen.”

And now, with one week left in his re­tire­ment tour, the emo­tions and the re­al­ity are very real for Earn­hardt. Al­though he has three cars run­ning for the Xfin­ity Se­ries cham­pi­onship on Satur­day, a fu­ture ca­reer in broad­cast­ing with NBC, a baby girl on the way, there’s some­thing miss­ing this week.

“I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this hap­pen­ing,” Earn­hardt said of his fa­ther. -----Jenna Fryer be­gan cov­er­ing NASCAR in 1997 at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way, be­fore Dale Earn­hardt Jr. made his Cup de­but. She can be fol­lowed via https:// twit­ter.com/jen­nafryer -----More AP auto rac­ing cov­er­age: http://rac­ing. ap.org/

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