Driving own road

Auto racing: As the son of a NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels pressure, but, even more, he feels grateful.

Auto Racing

September 29, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - In his red driver's suit and dark brown sunglasses, Dale Earnhardt Jr. may epitomize the cool look of a stock car driver. But when it comes to his desire for his first NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, there is nothing cool about him.

"To win the title will be difficult now or in five years," he said. "But I will absolutely win it, and when I do, it will be tough not to retire. In my heart, it will be the greatest achievement of my life. It will be really emotional and awkward and awesome all at the same time."

Earnhardt is the son of the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. It is a familiar story that he says everyone knows. A story he no longer finds painful, but, well, "monotonous." It is the same way he views the desire of those around NASCAR to see him further emulate his father by winning the championship.

"I really get disappointed with the pressure put on me to win a championship, to win this championship," he said. "I'm going to win a championship. Maybe this is my year, maybe not. We have to get to the end to see."

Earnhardt seemed to glow in the afternoon sunshine as he sat at a picnic table on an autumn day in the garage area at Dover International Speedway.

"I know I've got several more years left to win a championship," said Earnhardt, who trails Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch and is just 19 points off the Nextel Cup lead with eight races left in the season.

"But I've already reached my own personal goals in life. My goal was to make a career out of racing. I've seen relatives of famous drivers and sons of famous drivers [including his brother, Kerry] struggle.

"I'm glad I'm going to make a living this way and not have to be a mechanic in a service station or in a dealership. Just to be good enough to hold the job, that's all I've wanted."

He paused and then laughed, saying, "I set my goals pretty short."

The fans who had gathered on a hillside to watch Earnhardt speak to a reporter likely wouldn't have agreed. They sat or stood 10 feet away. Occasionally, a camera shutter clicked.

He had chosen to sit there for an interview last weekend, an unlikely spot for a driver - any driver - most of whom guard their privacy.

"It's a beautiful day," he said, looking at the blue sky, when asked why he had chosen this place. "And I thought all those people over there would have a chance to see this interview, something they normally don't get to see. It's something different for them."

Earnhardt will turn 30 Oct. 10, but people still refer to him as "The Kid." He's Dale Earnhardt's kid, all right. Being the talented son of a racing legend is how he got his start. But he is the one who has made the most of the first opportunity his dad gave him and built it into something more.

Ask Terry Labonte to reflect on the son of his old friend and he squints, as if bringing the younger Earnhardt into focus.

"Who in this sport is under more pressure?" Labonte asked. "I can't imagine anyone. The sponsor he has. His dad. The image. The fans he inherited who expect so much from him.

"I think some people look at him and think he's awful lucky, but if you really think about it, he was thrown into a real pressure cooker. And that kid has handled it; handled it all unbelievably and he's still down-to-earth. There is no doubt his dad would be awful proud."

Leery of fame

Earnhardt has been strong while facing the most heartbreaking disaster, the death of his father at Daytona; composed and gracious while dealing with the crush of demands that followed. He is also insightful about himself and less than sure of being a celebrity beyond the sport.

"I think every person who reaches a level of fame has doubts and curiosities about it," he said. "You get put in awkward and uncomfortable situations quite often. One of my problems, it kind of goes back to realizing your place in the sport.

"I don't see myself at the same level of fame as [the people around] me do. They're always saying I've got what it takes. Every time I have to go to New York or Los Angeles for a TV show appearance I say, `Aw, man, I don't want to do that. Those people don't know who I am.' And they say, `Aw, yeah they do, come on. You reach that far.'

"But I don't know. I go home and sit in my house and say, `This is me, right here.' "

One of those uncomfortable experiences will be on display tonight when Earnhardt is interviewed on 60 Minutes (8 p.m., Channel 13).

Earnhardt is the first NASCAR driver to be featured on the news magazine show in nearly 20 years and was interviewed by correspondent Mike Wallace. Wallace, 86, survived a few brisk laps around Daytona International Speedway in a Corvette C6 with Earnhardt at the wheel before visiting him at his home in Mooresville, N.C.

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