Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane of the Talladega Superspeedway after winning the EA Sports 500 NASCAR race in Talladega, Ala., in this Oct. 3, 2004 photo. On the eve of his 30th birthday and despite occasional indiscretions like being penalized for using a four-letter word during a TV interview, Dale Earnhardt Jr. longs to be the go-to guy in NASCAR.
AP Photo/Terry Renna
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about to turn 30, and despite occasional indiscretions like being penalized for cursing on TV, he longs to be the go-to guy in NASCAR.
Already the sport's biggest star despite his lack of a championship, Junior is adored by millions of fans, is wealthy beyond the dreams of most and has shown he inherited a considerable amount of talent from his late father.
In five years in NASCAR's top stock car series, Junior has won 14 times and has finally become a legitimate title contender, going into Kansas Speedway this week second in points with only seven races remaining.
But he wants more -- and not just on the racetrack.
''I'm kind of like the guy who has some old valuable baseball card in his collection that he's looked at for years and doesn't know it,'' Earnhardt said.
''Everybody is always telling me about my position in the sport and how far I reach and my impact here and there. I can't grasp it. I don't know if I walk into a room who is listening and who isn't.''
The elder Earnhardt, a seven-time champion and the biggest star of his generation, died in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500. At the time of his death, he was the biggest name and the most powerful influence in NASCAR, often visiting the NASCAR hauler to let the sport's officials know his opinion of every crisis or proposed change.
More important, as far as Junior is concerned, the NASCAR officials more often than not listened to his father. That's what the younger Earnhardt wants.
''I know it was pretty commonplace with my dad to be up in that trailer every weekend,'' he said. ''All the drivers have said that was something they really liked about dad was that he could go up in there and get something done for the drivers.
''I'd love to be that guy. Who wouldn't? Hopefully, I can just get smarter and every time I talk I'll know what I'm talking about and everybody will think it was awesome and they'll do it.''
It may be a while, though.
Little E's remarks came a day before he raced away with his latest win at Talladega Superspeedway, then let his mouth race away with him in Victory Lane, uttering a vulgarity during a postrace TV interview on NBC Sports.
Meanwhile, Junior will celebrate his birthday Sunday in Kansas as he tries to overcome the loss of points with another strong performance in the Banquet 400.
Earnhardt didn't let the disappointment over the NASCAR penalty spoil his sister Kelley's surprise birthday party for him Tuesday night. There were gifts and plenty of laughs, the biggest one coming when crew chief Tony Eury Sr. gave him a beautifully wrapped box.
Junior ripped the wrapping off and pulled out the gift, looking puzzled.
''A muzzle for my dog?'' he asked. ''No, no,'' replied Eury. ''That ain't for your dog!''
Earnhardt and the guests, including NASCAR president Mike Helton and garage boss John Darby roared with laughter.
As for turning 30, Junior, who professes a love for rap and MTV and prefers jeans and baseball caps to suits and ties, isn't outwardly concerned.
''It's really cool,'' he said. ''I'm looking forward to it because I don't feel 30 and I don't act 30, so it don't bother me to turn 30.
''Obviously, the older you get, the more credibility you attain from people and the more sensible your actions and thoughts and words are. I would really like the day to come when I can walk into the NASCAR hauler and say something or ask them to consider something and it truly gets considered.''
One driver who can understand Earnhardt's situation is Kyle Petty, whose father, Richard, is the other seven-time Cup champion and the biggest star of his generation.
''He came into the sport with a big last name,''' Petty said. ''I think a lot of people just focused on that at first. They knew who he was because of the Earnhardt name, but maybe didn't know who he was as a person.
''It has been impressive to watch him grow into his own person. Kyle Petty is different than Richard Petty. Brian France is different than Bill France Jr. I think that's the way you need to look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's a different person than his father and he's done a good job of becoming his own person.''
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