Tragedy matures Junior

Posted: Thursday, April 12, 2001

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The play ful, sometimes arrogant bounce in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s swagger was lost in a split second Feb. 18. That was the day he watched in his rear-view mirror as his father slammed into the fourth-turn wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Each day since has taken the third-generation driver a little further from a rebellious demeanor that was a family tradition and a family curse.

The son who only a few short weeks ago gave his father headaches by playing his music too loud and by partying until dawn, now paces around cavernous Dale Earnhardt Inc. with the same attention to detail of a chief operating officer.

''I was a young punk (before the crash),'' Earnhardt Jr. said with a clever smile. ''Now I'm an older punk, I guess. I had this little bit of a brat in me somewhere. Now, that's all gone.''

Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champion who died instantly of a skull fracture, left nothing to chance. The course of his three-team racing operation was mapped well into his son's tenure and beyond.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 26, is doing his part. So is his stepmother, Teresa. Instead of one man running the show, DEI has become a collective effort. It leaves no time for playing, no time for all-nighters, and for the most part, no time to grieve.

''I've seen incredible changes in Dale,'' said DEI driver Steve Park. ''He went from being a young man to being a grown man in one weekend. He's just done a tremendous job in going from wanting to sit at home and listening to CDs to helping run a multimillion-dollar company and help ing Teresa out and the rest of the race team.''

Teresa Earnhardt is clearly in charge. Many felt she was the guiding force in turning her husband's success into one of racing's most impressive empires. Now she walks around the shop patting crewmen on the back and asking questions. She might not understand the mechanics of a race car, but she understands people.

''She's in the shop; she's making sure things get done,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''She runs the race team, but all of us help out. My dad used to see that things got done. Now we all have to do it. Teresa's in the shop talking to people, trying to keep everyone pumped up. I'm in there, too.''

Earnhardt Jr. still wears his Bud weiser cap backward. He still hates early wakeup calls and still plays his music a little loud. But most of all, he still misses his father.

''I do a lot of things that I never did before, and I only do them because I know he wanted me to do them,'' he said in a recent television interview. ''The only thing that gets me over to the shop is just knowing that, if he had the opportunity, he'd be beating on the door at 8 o'clock in the morning, trying to get me up.''

When young Earnhardt won The Winston all-star race last year, it was the first time he ever saw emotion in his father's eyes.

And it was the last.

''In all the years I was around him, in the rare times I did something he was pretty happy about, that was the one time where he looked at me and you knew it was a big deal,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''It was real hard for him to really show emotion, and that evening I saw every bit of it.

''The majority of my enjoyment was how proud my father got and to see him happy after a win. That's not there any more. So I guess I'm doing it now like everybody else is: just out here trying to make a living.''

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