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ThatsRacin.com


It's not easy being 'E'

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – How would you like to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday?

As people constantly remind you, your father died 10 years ago this week.

He died in the race you’re about to run – the Daytona 500, the biggest event in NASCAR – in a last-lap, last-turn crash that changed your sport and your life forever.

Your father was NASCAR’s Elvis. You have been both blessed and cursed by the fact that you share his name. It has opened many doors for you. But it also means that nothing you do is ever quite enough. Whether you are struggling or celebrating, a spotlight permanently illuminates your life.

Lap 3 of Sunday’s race will be silent on television to honor your father’s race number. Fans at Daytona will take off their caps and hold three fingers aloft. You will do your best to ignore all that, staying focused on your gauges and the cars in front of you.

Although it could end up as one of the most memorable moments in this race’s history due to the layers of emotion involved, you insist that you don’t think about it that way.

Instead, you would like to respectfully urge people to move on. You haven’t talked much about your father’s death at Daytona recently. You don’t think he would want you to. You think he would tell people to get over his death and get on with their lives.

So you’re walking a tightrope at this Daytona 500 at 200 mph. As you say: “I want to honor him and respect him, make him happy and please his fans. But I don’t want to drag on about the details.”

You are 36 now – not as much of a partier as you used to be and not as outwardly cheerful, either.

People want you to be happy, because up close you are almost impossible to dislike. So they look desperately for signals that your mood may be lifting. The fact you’ve been wearing your baseball cap backward more often this week, like you used to in more-carefree days, is seen as a positive sign.

But you carry the weight of a 93-race winless streak in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, as well as the burden of pleasing both your fans and your dad’s. Those around you admire your tenacity and the way you return to Daytona every year, racing hundreds of times through Turn 4 where your father died.

As your owner Rick Hendrick says of you: “I don’t know how he even goes to Daytona…. And I can’t tell you how I can handle what he’s trying to handle.

"Carry on his father’s name. A business to take care of. Making everybody happy. And the sport needs him to do well. So he’s getting it from everywhere. He has no safe zone.”

The thing is that you like Daytona – a lot – even though this is where your father perished. You’ll never be quite the racer your father was. That’s no sin, as he may have been the best ever.

But you did inherit his knack for restrictor-plate racing. You know how to drive Daytona’s 2.5-mile superspeedway as well as anyone, and you finished second in the 2010 Daytona 500.

You won a race in the second-tier Nationwide series here in July. On Saturday, you finished fourth in another Nationwide race, less than one-tenth of a second behind winner Tony Stewart.

‘Like he’s never driven before’

So could you pull off a fairytale victory in NASCAR’s Great American Race? It’s possible, but it’s not likely. You are only one of 43 talented drivers in the field. Nevertheless, you will be babbled about on TV as much as anyone.

“We’ll be talking about Dale Jr. all afternoon,” Darrell Waltrip, the racer turned Fox Sports analyst, says. “I haven’t seen him this pumped up for awhile. I think he’s going to drive like he’s never driven before.”

Waltrip and his employer hope so, anyway, since your being in contention is NASCAR’s version of Tiger Woods being in contention in a golf tournament’s final round. It moves the needle.

You won the Daytona 500 pole with the fastest qualifying lap – drawing snickers from the conspiracy theorists who believe that any time you have success it’s due to NASCAR manipulating the results.

Tony Kornheiser, co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” show, said on-air Tuesday after your pole victory: “There are people in and around the NASCAR world – not just drivers but people who cover the sport as well – who are winking at this one. Who are wondering if this wasn’t a set-up.”

Kornheiser later backed off those “NASCAR is fixed” comments, which while incorrect did give voice to what some were privately thinking. So even when you win, you often don’t really win. Not for long.

And that pole?

You managed to wreck your car in Wednesday’s optional practice. You didn’t want to practice at all that day but didn’t argue hard enough against the idea. (Would your dad have argued harder in the same circumstances? Yes). So you have to start from the back of the field in a backup car.

You could still win, of course. Cars can thread their way through the field at Daytona. The race will be a “two-by-two” high-speed chase that the biblical Noah would have loved but you don’t like much, preferring not to have to link up with someone else to go fast. But you’ll have to play along, because cars hooked up in a two-car tango can go up to 20 mph quicker than cars going solo.

You haven’t won in the Cup series since 2008. Your total win number – 18 – is very respectable, but only three of those victories have come in the past six years. You finished 21st in the overall Cup standings last season.

You also have a tendency to get down on yourself, and that gloominess seeps into your own team.

“I take full responsibility for how I’ve run,” you say. “I don’t put that on anyone else. One of the worst parts of running bad is that it affects not only you, but your crew chief and your relationship with your team.”

You begin this season with your third crew chief in the past three years, as Hendrick keeps trying to find a partner that can inspire you. “We’ve been to the bottom,” Hendrick says. “We’re going to get better.”

But as your friend and fellow driver Stewart says of you: “He’s always been under pressure. It’s just a matter of him delivering. Every time you add a different crew chief and it doesn’t work out, it’s that much more pressure on him.”

You drive a safer car compared with the cars everyone drove 10 years ago when your father died. Your father’s death rocked NASCAR and brought about a flurry of safety innovations, although you are like your dad in the way that you always discount the danger of what you do.

“I don’t readily identify each safety innovation to him,” you say. “And I felt the first time I climbed into a race car I was 100 percent safe. Even when the accident happened, I felt safe the next week.”

Chasing the dream

You thought about quitting in the immediate aftermath of your father’s death, but you weren’t sure what else you could do. And anyway, you liked to race.

“My dad gave me this opportunity, and I would be a fool to squander it,” you say.

So you have kept racing. The combination of your name, your honesty and your blue-collar roots have won you the vote as NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past eight years in a row.

When you drive through the Daytona infield, you will see your name on flags and banners, as well as on ads for Nationwide Insurance, Wrangler jeans, Hellman’s mayonnaise and who knows what else.

You make millions every year and you could retire right now, but you crave the racing. In racing’s offseason, you get antsy.

"I get to feeling like I’m not doing nothing,” you say. “I’m not productive. I feel pointless and useless.”

So on Sunday you feel useful.

You will rev up your engine and chase your second Daytona 500 victory – and your father’s shadow – one more time.

How would you like to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday?

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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