Earnhardt Jr. matures after father's Daytona 500 death

All grown up

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2001

The maturing process for Dale Earnhardt Jr. accelerated rapidly with the death of his father in the Daytona 500.

''When I found out he was dead, I knew nothing was ever going to be the same,'' Little E said. ''Before my father's death, I was kind of raised under his arm. I didn't have things to worry about that other people had to worry about.

''He took care of everything -- the money stuff, the team. I always thought there was this little brat in me somewhere. That's all gone.''

But it's hard to tell from just looking at the 26-year-old racer that much has changed.

He still wears his baseball caps backward and his shirts big, sloppy and hanging below his waist. Chilling out with his music or his old hometown pals remain his chief forms of relaxation.

Things are definitely different, though.

The face that used to alternately shine with a smile of innocent wonder at the racing fame taking hold of him, or grimace with an eye-blazing intensity when talking about his career, now too often melts into a sad, faraway look.

''It'll be a long, long time before I feel like I felt before all that happened,'' Earnhardt said in a hushed voice. ''I deal with this the best way I can. I think about him all the time, and it seems like there's good days and bad days.''

Usually, there's no total escape.

''Just when you think you're beginning to feel better about it, you'll hit a bump in the road and you'll spend two or three days where you can't think about nothing else,'' Earnhardt said. ''I don't know how long that'll be, but it's not such a bad thing because I like to think about him often.''

Earnhardt, who grew up going to racetracks with his famous father, has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support in the garage area.

Drivers he never really talked to much are telling him how much his father meant to them.

''It's been amazing.'' Earnhardt said.

Steve Park, a teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc., has noticed a change in his friend.

''He went from being a young man to being a grown man in one weekend,'' Park said. ''He's just done a tremendous job in stepping up and going from wanting to sit home and listen to CDs to helping run a multimillion-dollar company.

Park is amazed to see Earnhardt take such an active role so quickly, determined to keep moving forward with what his father and stepmother, Teresa, started four years ago.

''He's really been impressive through all these tough times,'' Park said.

In times of personal crisis and despair, most drivers take refuge in their race cars. Earnhardt Jr. said that hasn't been the case for him.

''You know I raced for three years, in the Busch Series and the Winston Cup Series, and the majority of my enjoyment was how proud my father got and to see him happy after a win,'' he said. ''That's not there no more. So I guess I'm doing it now like everybody else -- just out there trying to make a living.

''It's not less important than it used to be. It's just different.''

There have been tributes to The Intimidator at each of the six Winston Cup races since his death Feb. 18. That, too, has been somewhat tough on Dale Jr.

''The thing that you have to keep in mind is that everyone's intentions are good,'' he said. ''It makes me feel good, but then there's been times when it's a hindrance because it gets your mind off what you need to be doing.''

A good example of that came last month in Bristol, Tenn. Earnhardt ran extremely well in the final practice session, and was excited about the possibility of a good run the next day in the Food City 500.

But as he stepped out of his car, he heard commentary on the PA system concerning his father's achievements at Bristol.

''It just takes you out of that mindset and puts you to thinking about that,'' he said.

The next day, the tributes continued, and Earnhardt was caught up once more in the emotion.

''When they're done, they sing the national anthem and they move on,'' he said. ''Then they start the engines and you're sitting in the car totally unprepared for what you're getting ready to do.''

Earnhardt finished 31st that Sunday. He stands 20th in points, quite a fall after a second-place finish to teammate Michael Waltrip as his father crashed on the final lap of the season-opening race.

But competition remains a priority for the third-generation driver, and he knows that wins and championships for him and the rest of the elder Earnhardt's team are the best way to honor his father's memory.

''I don't think you can look for one thing, or a few things and say this is going to help,'' he said. ''You just go on day after day. I do know that I want to win races, possibly a championship one year. Those things will help.''

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