Magazine article Newsweek

The Son Also Races: A Candid Dale Earnhardt Jr. on How He's Driving out of His Legendary Dad's Shadow

Magazine article Newsweek

The Son Also Races: A Candid Dale Earnhardt Jr. on How He's Driving out of His Legendary Dad's Shadow

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel McGinn and Bret Begun

Inside Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s $880,000 custom motor home is a shelf whose contents hint at his complicated role as the race-car-driving son of a martyred NASCAR legend. The cabinet used to be filled with Junior's playthings, and some remain: CDs of obscure rock bands, computer games and copies of Playboy. "That blonde there is hotter-'an-dammit," says the 27-year-old bachelor, ogling a centerfold. "Don't get much better lookin' than that." But since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal crash at last year's Daytona 500, the Playmates have been joined by keepsakes pushed on Junior by his father's following. He flips through homemade photo collages showing his dad surrounded by fans' cheesy poetry. "A little flea-marketish, you know what I'm saying?" he says. Then he fingers a particularly blurry snapshot. "People do this all the time," he says. "They'll be like 'You gotta have this' "--like it's a long-lost family heirloom, he jokes--"and it's a picture of my dad's backside." Before the crash, Junior had few photos of his father--indeed, their relationship was never picture-perfect. But now, even as he mocks fans who create shrines to Dale Senior, he's loath to throw away the most mediocre shots. "It's good to have some extras," he says.

As this year's racing season hits cruising speed, the cameras are in constant close-up on the young man driving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy. Like JFK Jr. or Prince William, this son of an icon has become an object of fascination himself. And after a slow start in his third full season on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit, in recent weeks Junior has been driving near the front of the pack. In 2001 he finished eighth in the points total, and won three races and $5.8 million in prize money; as of last week he was ranked sixth. "I'm pretty pumped to be where we are," Junior tells NEWSWEEK. But his celebrity has eclipsed those numbers. Judging from the applause, he's the crowd's favorite. He starred in ads that aired during the Super Bowl and the Olympics; his recent book, "Driver No. 8," hit No. 4 on The New York Times bestseller list. Junior inherited many of his fans from his father, but he's attracted new ones, too, with huge crossover appeal to the MTV crowd. That attention comes at a price. Richard Petty worries about Junior's ability to focus on driving amid growing celebrity distractions. But he sees no shortage of talent. "He can be as good as his dad," he says.

If Earnhardt Sr. was proud of his son's following him into the driver's seat, the dad rarely showed it. Junior's parents divorced when he was 3. Dale Senior remarried and started a new family; because of his travel schedule, he had limited time for his son. Even when Junior started racing at 16, his father never came to his races and provided little encouragement. In 1999, the Earnhardts raced against each other for the first time. Junior was ecstatic. "I didn't give a f--- about the race--I just wanted to be out there on the same straightaway, to watch him right in front of me," he says. …

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