Junior trying to escape father's shadow

Father's death thrust Junior into the limelight

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't be bothered by a winless streak that stretches back to the 2008 season while he's at Daytona International Speedway the next two weeks.


There won't be as much pressure to be the face of NASCAR, especially in an age when television ratings and attendance figures continue to fall. He will avoid the normal appearances that come with the biggest race of the season.

The pain of his father's death 10 years ago on the final lap of the Daytona still is too fresh, too deep.

Dale Earnhardt was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was a hero. He was a champion. He was the common man who never forgot his roots.

But to Junior, he was a father.

There will be countless tributes and stories written and aired about Earnhardt in the next week. Many will talk of the sweeping changes in safety. Others will delve into the seven-time champion's legacy and how the sport has steered through the challenges in the past 10 years.

The son will watch from afar.

"It's just too personal for me, and there's certain depths of it that I'm not comfortable discussing," Junior said during a media tour stop at Hendrick Motorsports two weeks ago.

"I know how I feel in my heart. I don't feel a real need to discuss it a lot.

"Everybody wants me to reflect and honor my father at this time," he said. "I'll be happy to observe anything that goes on. If you don't mind I'd just rather watch it, stand on the sidelines. I know how I feel in my heart and I don't feel the need to discuss it a lot."

Junior was riding second to his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate, Michael Waltrip, on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His father was third as the final charge took shape. Earnhardt appeared to block and was tapped by Sterling Marlin.

Earnhardt's car turned left and suddenly veered right into the fourth-turn wall. He slammed into the steering wheel to an instant death. After his father's death, racing almost instantly turned to Junior.

There were so many questions on how and why one of the sport's most beloved drivers died. Maybe the son could bring some much-needed solace to those who ached for answers. Maybe he could pick up where his father left off. Maybe he could ease their pain.

No matter how hard Junior has tried, he hasn't been able to escape his father's shadow. His fans are desperate for him to succeed. So is the rest of the sport. Like Tiger Woods in golf, television ratings rocket when he is in contention.

For the most part, victories and championships have been little more than fantasy. The biggest challenge is to be relevant.

"I'm really sick of how we've ran over the last several years and ready to see something different, ready to go to the track and see different results," Junior said.

Ten years ago, his life was on the fast track to success, and his father was keenly capable of providing direction and cover. The father could deflect a lot of the expectations and demands; the son could enjoy the ride.

That all changed the moment Earnhardt died.

Junior's immediate reaction was to quit racing, but he was back on the track a week later at Rockingham, N.C.

"My dad gave me this opportunity and I would be a fool to squander it," he said.

Years of tension between Junior and stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, led to his departure from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

Hendrick has the deepest pockets in racing. He built a championship team for Terry Labonte, four championships for Jeff Gordon and a current run of five in a row for Jimmie Johnson.

Junior, however, remains an enigma.

Fans have voted him the sport's most popular driver for eight consecutive years. Forbes lists him as the highest-paid driver in the sport, often earning more than $30 million a year in souvenir sales, endorsements and salary. He hasn't been able to transform his off-track fame and success to victories in recent years.

"If you're going to be the most popular driver, that 'most popular' comes with baggage," car owner Rick Hendrick said. "So you do the best you can and you have to deal with it."

"Everybody just expects me or Dale to wave some magic wand and he's going to lead every lap and win every race."

Junior will start the season with a 93-race winless streak -- and his third different crew chief in less than 18 months.

He also will start with the emotional burden of the 10-year anniversary of his father's death.

Junior knows he can never escape his father's shadow or his place in the family's legacy. Earnhardt was a lot of things to a lot of people, but his most important role was being a father.

"I think as I was growing up, you know, you tried to get away and do your own thing as have fun as a kid but at the same time you wanted to make your parents proud, and you sort of found your direction by listening to them inadvertently, whether you wanted to or not," Junior said.

"My dad was there to guide me in a lot of good directions that helped me out a lot. I think that I tried to -- I tried to have some of the same good qualities that he had. The qualities that I enjoyed about him, I tried to emulate those as best I could and keep those qualities as well, because I felt like it made him a good person."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

Tragedy led to safer cars, tracks and no deaths
Haunting memory
About the series

TUESDAY: Sterling Marlin became the target of death threats and insults after his bump started Dale Earnhardt's fatal spin.

WEDNESDAY: The sport went through a renaissance of safety initiatives that has kept any other driver in NASCAR from dying on the track since that day.

TODAY: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left to deal with the enormous pressure and expectations of carrying on the family tradition without his father's help.

FRIDAY: The Florida Legislature and courts got involved when news outlets and Web sites wanted to post Earnhardt's autopsy photos.

SATURDAY: Earnhardt's stature continues to grow in death, and the sport's popularity seemed to peak in the seasons immediately following his crash.

SUNDAY: More than 200 drivers, celebrities and fans share their stories of Feb. 18, 2001.

MONDAY: What would Earnhardt be doing today if he had survived the crash? How else would NASCAR be different?