The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Monday May 14, 2007
As Dale Earnhardt, Jr. faced the media Thursday morning at his shops in Mooresville, NC, Junior himself took the first step in embarking on the next chapter of his life. His decision to abdicate the No. 8 Chevrolets that he has driven for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated since 1999 has implications that reach far beyond the driver’s seat. As he was explaining to everyone the reasons behind his choice, one of the most telling was a piece of advice he had gleaned from his father: “Be your own man.”
One thing was very apparent as the press conference began; this was not an easy day for Junior to take. He was seated with his sister Kelley, the backdrop being a simple marquee and photo of JR Motorsports. He was not dressed in his sponsor's colors, and there were not Budweiser cases stacked on stage. He hadn't shaved, and he was wearing a white T-shirt with a dress shirt over it, both untucked and unbuttoned. There was no pretense of a suit, tie, or wearing a sponsor-laden golf shirt, so we were handicapped without the proper equipment to diagnose the problem at hand. The dress for the occasion matched the personality; in that sense, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has always been refreshing. He can always be counted on to give his opinion of something without diverging into a sponsor-riddled, canned response that makes one's jaw slacken and forget what question he was answering in the first place. On that memorable Thursday, Junior was clearly not under the direction of anyone but himself.
In fact, Junior has always been a unique figure in the sport. Early on, many drew contrasts between he and his father. While Dale Senior liked to get up at 5 AM, Junior liked to go to bed at 5 AM, rising by the crack of noon. Dale Senior liked to go hunting; Junior preferred video games. His dad was always seen wearing a sponsor's shirt, tucked in, and ready to handle business after taking off the driving suit. On the contrary, Junior showed up wearing a do-rag and his hat on backwards, ready to handle whatever party came his way after the race. However, as different as they may have appeared on the outside, it is apparent that underneath the surface they are very much the same.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. grew up hungry, with a desire to win races, championships, and to create an empire that he could pass onto his children so they would not have to struggle as he did. Over the last couple of years, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has changed some, slowly developing the same type of hunger his father had. The hat is now facing forward, and he emphasizes time and time again his desire to win races and contend for championships. He bristles at the notion and takes offense to people "clowning" him, in his words, suggesting that he's just in it for the money and isn't serious about being a professional race car driver. After he almost joined his father following an explosive fiery wreck in an American LeMans Series race in 2004, his frustration and anger towards such thoughts are well justified.
During his press conference, Junior reiterated a number of times that part of the reason why he wants to move on is to be able to provide for his family far into the future. Dale Junior is 32 years old, has no children, and is unmarried. He does, however, have two women in his life that mean to the world to him; his mother Brenda, and his sister Kelley. Kelley helped raise Dale Jr. through his formative years, as he didn't spend much time with his father or stepmother, who opted to ship him off to military school. A couple of years ago, Junior was part of a promotion that featured him giving his mother Brenda a ride around Lowe's Motor Speedway in a Richard Petty Driving Experience car. The in-car camera afterwards instead captured Junior exclaiming, "Wasn't that fun, momma?!!!" He sounded more like an 8-year-old boy who had ridden a roller coaster for the first time than a seasoned stock car driver immune to the thrill of going around the track at three quarter speed.
Much like his father who had built an organization in D.E.I. to leave to his children, Dale Junior desperately wants to be in a position to do the same for his sister, mother, and Miss Right whenever she happens to come along. The days of men like his father and Richard Petty racing into their 50's is about to be a thing of the past. He has already said on a number of occasions he doesn't want to do this forever, and his window of opportunity was narrowing as negotiations with D.E.I. dragged on. To say they dragged on is a misnomer, actually; since the teams were so far apart to begin with, it's hard to imagine that they really even got off the ground in the first place.
Many fans are hoping that he will drive for Richard Childress Racing; the parallels of him joining RCR at 32 years old as his dad did should not be lost on anyone. Many Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (and Sr.) fans would no doubt get a little misty eyed if Junior showed up at Daytona in 2008 driving a black No. 3 Budweiser Select Chevrolet, one similar to what he drove last year at Talladega that got fans talking. Dale has reiterated a number of times he has no desire at this point in his career to drive the No. 3 car. He didn't want to upon his father's passing in 2001, either, and his rationale for why has not seemed to change. For Junior, it has always been his desire to create his own image, be his own man, and not try to be a Mini-Me version of The Intimidator. Similar to the expectations that Kyle Petty had to live up to while driving reverse paint-schemed No. 42 STP cars with father Richard in the early 80's, Dale Jr. chose to run the No. 8 that was his grandfather Ralph's number. Dale, Sr. then purchased the number from Billy Stavola, all so Junior could continue to carry on that family tradition as well. Taking on his grandfather’s legacy was doable, in Junior’s eyes; but he worries that the larger-than-life expectations of the No. 3 could wind up being too much.
Of course, Junior has no shortage of support as he turns towards the future; the grandstands at any NASCAR track on any given Sunday are a blinding sea of Budweiser red. The only place you see more red is May 1st, on Main Street in Moscow. A great deal of the Junior Nation are converts from his father, who naturally selected Junior as their driver following the events at Daytona in 2001. Following his announcement Thursday and the manner in which he has handled himself through what has no doubt been an emotional and difficult time for him, Junior has gained more than a few fans in this long, complex process. Fans of this sport respect honesty, courage, and integrity. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. accomplished all of these three things on Thursday, honoring his father in the process. When he drove the Wrangler Jeans No. 3, Dale Sr. was billed in advertisements for his sponsor as, "One Tough Customer". Apparently, as they say, it’s in the “jeans,” as Junior is proving to be a pretty tough customer himself.
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