This is 40

Dale Earnhardt Jr. balances his pursuit of his first championship with being NASCAR's most popular driver, all while showing he's his father's son

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Junior at 40 stares hard at the carpet and talks about how comfortable he feels with himself. That’s the theme these days, the thing everybody wants to talk about with him now that he is 40 — how comfortable he is being Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He does feel comfortable, you know, except, well, it’s hard to explain. Junior has told his own story so many times that, in a way, it doesn’t even feel like his own story.

He’s not saying the media gets him wrong. They get him right, mostly. He recognizes himself in the features and columns and video montages and live interviews. He sees the lost kid who didn’t like being the namesake of the fiercest and most famous stock car driver in the world. He sees the heartbroken son who saw Dale Earnhardt die in his rearview mirror. He sees the agitated young man who partied like mad and never stopped feeling anxious. He sees the older man, at peace, the protagonist of today’s stories.

Yes, he seems himself in the coverage. The media, the public, they’re not so far off.

At the same time, they’re a million miles off too. You know?

“Everything you see in the media feels very extreme,” he says, and he pauses and keeps looking at the ground. “It just feels very extreme as opposed to what you think it is, what it feels like in real life.

“When it’s in the media … it’s just … it’s just out there … you know? … It’s out there …  and everybody’s reading it … and it becomes this big thing. Like they get some of the details right … but there’s something different … it’s not so grand …”

Junior shrugs and still does not look up. There’s no explaining all this. Now the stories focus on how comfortable he is, how much Amy and Steve and others have changed his life, how he’s winning again on the track and enjoying life more off the track. So be it. The stories are right. And they’re also not right. You know?

“I don’t have it perfect,” he says. “I haven’t perfected things. I don’t have everything in my life exactly right. I don’t do everything right every day.”

And now he does look up.

“I have a hard time,” he says, “sitting there and not worrying about what other people are thinking.”

Ages 3 to 16

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 7 years old, he saw his father climb a ladder so he could cut off some tree limbs. His father ended up gashing his hand with a chainsaw; it was so badly slashed that you could see all the way to the bone. What did he do? Well, Dale Earnhardt figured since he was up there already, he might as well finish cutting the tree limbs. He could wash off the blood later.

That was Dale Earnhardt, the Man in Black, the Intimidator. He was the son of a driver, too, the son of Ralph Earnhardt, who was the ultimate thinking man’s driver. Dale Earnhardt drove more from the gut. He gave the other drivers one chance, and only one chance, to get the hell out of the way. He won seven Sprint Cup championships through guts and will and menace. Ned Yost – now the Kansas City Royals’ manager – tells the Kansas City Star the story of sitting once with Dale Earnhardt and noticing that other drivers never came by.

“No, I don’t have a friend out here,” Earnhardt said.

“Why not?” Yost asked.

“Because I don’t want anyone looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the black No. 3 come behind them and think I’m their friend,” Earnhardt said.

That was the force of nature Junior loved from afar. Dale Earnhardt was no more interested in fatherhood than he was in other drivers’ friendship. He left the family when Junior was three. Junior went to live with Dale and his new wife, Teresa, only after his mother’s house burned to the ground. “He wasn’t around much,” is Junior’s stock line. His sister, Kelley, was only two years older than him, but she raised Junior more than anybody.

Junior knew his father the way most people did … through the television. During races, he would spread out his Matchbox cars and reenact what he saw on television, with the No. 3 car always winning. Junior always did like playing alone. The kids at school bullied him, as much for his name as for his size. He rebelled the ways he knew how. Junior was kicked out of a Christian school for fighting and was sent to a military academy. He spent more time thinking about video games than cars.

And then, when he was 16 years old, he spent $200 and bought a 1978 Monte Carlo. And he and his brother Kerry went to work on it. Junior wasn’t very much like his father, something his father pointed out regularly. Junior wasn’t tough. Junior wasn’t ambitious. Junior didn’t fish or hunt, he liked alternative music more than country. Dale Earnhardt felt quite sure that his namesake could never be a race-car driver. But he missed something.

Father and son in 2001 (Getty Images)

There’s a quote from the poet Robert Frost that goes like this:

“You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.”

There’s a quote from Dale Earnhardt Jr. that goes like this: “I think I just wanted to be somebody Dad wanted to spend a lot of time with, you know?”

 

Junior at 40 talks about the pressure he feels this year to win a championship. His chances are running out now – he will almost certainly need to win at Talladega this week just to advance into the next round. And Talladega, every NASCAR fan knows, is the most unpredictable track in the circuit. “You have no control there,” Junior’s crew chief Steve Letarte says. “It’s the one track where luck is as important as anything.”

“The good Lord’s got a plan,” Junior says. “We’ll go down there, and if we’re supposed to win it, we’ll win it.”

It already has been a magical year. Any year you win the Daytona 500 is magical, but in addition to that, Junior also won twice at Pocono, meaning he has won more races in 2014 than in the previous seven seasons combined. No matter what happens, Junior feels like he has given friend Steve Letarte a wonderful sendoff – Letarte is joining NBC as an analyst next year.

But … those fans. Junior Nation, they call themselves. There aren’t other fans quite like them in racing, maybe in all of American sports. One recent NASCAR survey says that 30 percent of all NASCAR fans are Junior fans. And they adore Dale Jr., defend him, believe in him and think of him as their own son.

Junior Nation has a diverse demographic — they are fans of Dale Earnhardt Sr., certainly, and they are Southern racing fans who feel like the sport has lost some of its roots (Junior is the only North Carolina native in the NASCAR Chase), and they are young people who associate with Junior’s conspicuous sincerity. They cheer for him, and they cry for him, and they protect him.

“I think people just appreciate that he’ll say what he thinks,” NASCAR President Mike Helton says.

How big is Junior Nation? When Tony Stewart made his first NASCAR appearance after the tragic sprint car accident that resulted in the death of driver Kevin Ward Jr., fans unleashed enormous cheers of support. “At first,” said Stewart, one of the most popular race car drivers in the world, “I thought I accidentally walked out in Dale Jr.’s spot.”

How big is Junior Nation? Steve Letarte vividly remembers the first time he and Junior got together after Letarte became crew chief. They were in Las Vegas for Junior to pick up yet another Most Popular Driver award. Letarte had been the crew chief for Jeff Gordon, who is probably the second-most-popular driver. He thought he understood popularity. But then Letarte watched Junior walk along a 40-foot hallway.

“When Dale walked from Point A to Point B, the mass chaos that he created in that 40-foot spectacle, I learned that he is not like anybody I’ve ever been around. … I saw that and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be him. I don’t even know how he does it.’”

Junior’s overwhelming popularity is something that only a few American athletes – LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods – can understand. But there’s a simple thing that separates Junior, something he does not hide from. The others have won championships.

Junior says, “Our fans really believe in their hearts that this is the year. They’ve been waiting on this year. They think it’s fate. I would want nothing more than to win the championship, so those people could celebrate it.

“We’ve put those fans through hell. When we weren’t running well, they’d have to go to work and listen to people who weren’t fans laugh about how we ran, how bad we were. Seemed like we never lost one supporter, though, no matter how bad we raced. It’s miraculous.”

He looks back down at the carpet.

“But I don’t want to think too much about that,” he says. “That puts on more pressure. I definitely don’t want to do anything to manufacture more pressure. There’s plenty already there.”

 

Ages 17 to 25

Was Junior surprised that he had a talent for racing cars? Yeah, maybe a little. He’d heard his father mutter enough about him. Kelley was the driver with the real talent. She had their Dad’s edge. She had his ability to think about a hundred different things at one time, the ability to will the other drivers into getting out of her way. Junior didn’t have that. He still doesn’t.

But, Junior did have his skills. He had a good sense of what was happening around him. He had superb hand-eye coordination, perhaps from all of those video games. And there was something else — remember the scene in the Godfather when Michael found himself in front of the hospital ready to fight off an attack on his father. Michael was lighting a cigarette for someone and he found, much to his own shock, that his hands were perfectly calm, not even the slightest shake. He was born for this mafia business. That was the thing Junior had too. He felt an almost surreal calm in a race car. Everywhere else in Junior’s life he felt nervous, antsy, uncomfortable … but he felt so at ease in a car.

Dale Earnhardt did begin to notice his son. He did not say a lot at first – he always wanted Junior to make his own name – but now and again he offered some fatherly advice. When Junior told the Man in Black about this guy in Myrtle Beach who kept wrecking him, Dad nodded, thought it through, and told his son, “When he starts to cut across, put on your brakes and keep your steering wheel straight.” Next race, Junior closed his eyes and did just that. He successfully spun out his first victim. He felt the way other sons must feel when they catch their first fish with their Dad.

Junior won two Busch Series championships for his father. “That Junior, he’s been the big surprise to me,” Dale Earnhardt told reporters. “I didn’t think he had racin’ in him.” In 1999, at an International Race of Champions race in Michigan, Junior found himself on his father’s bumper as the race closed. On the final lap, as the father said, “Junior decided he wanted to race.” Junior went for the pass, The Intimidator went for the block, the two cars bumped two or three times, and The Intimidator won by inches. The men hugged happily afterward. Junior was in heaven.

“During races, he would spread out of his Matchbox cars and reenact what he saw on television, with the No. 3 car always winning”

The next year, Junior made it to the show, to what was then called the NASCAR Winston Cup, and he won his 12th race, a record for quickest victory. Everyone pointed out that it had taken Dale Earnhardt sixteen races to win his first one.

“Good job, I love you, enjoy this moment,” Dale Sr. said to him when that race ended. It was just about the warmest thing the Man in Black had ever said to his son.

Four weeks later, Junior won again in Richmond. “Good job, I love you, find your own way home,” Dale Sr. said to him, and he took off in his helicopter, preferring not to wait through his son’s celebration.

Junior was a phenomenon. And he was getting exactly what he wanted out of racing.

“I just wanted to be something he could be proud of,” Junior says, and then he corrects himself. “Well, all I really wanted was to talk to him, to talk about adult things with him, the things he talked about with his buddies.”

 

Junior at 40 likes thinking about those days when he hung out with his father and drove all out. He sees some of the young drivers today – phenoms like Kyle Larson – and it reminds him of what that kind of driving felt like. He was just … so … fast. He felt invincible.

You know Steve Letarte’s description of driving in NASCAR? It goes something like this: Imagine you’re driving, you’re in control, and then all of a sudden you hit a sheet of black ice. You are on the sheet of black ice for a few seconds and then your car gets to the end and is back on solid road, and you’re in control again.

Those few seconds on black ice, the few seconds of undiluted panic that you did not even know existed, those few seconds are what drivers feel for 500 miles, give or take a caution flag or two. Junior at 24 and 25 years old craved that feeling. He wanted to explore it.

“When you’re young, there’s this raw speed you possess,” Junior says now. “I think it’s not knowing. … Sometimes, there will be this kid with a lot of speed and you will hear people say, ‘Yeah, well, he hasn’t hit anything hard yet.’”

When you ask Junior why you lose that feeling when you get older, he smiles a little.

“Well,” he says, “back then you just don’t know any better.”

 

Age 26-36

When Dale Earnhardt died, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself king of a sport he did not yet understand. He knew how to drive a car fast – that was just inside him. But the rest of it was baffling and touching and troubling and heart-pounding. People just loved him completely, absolutely, utterly, and he just did not know what to do with all that love. Was it all just for his father? Did he deserve any of it?

Junior won the first NASCAR race after 9/11 the year Dale Earnhardt died, and he held an American flag out the window as he rode his victory lap, and that seemed to double his fan base. He got into a fight with someone on Tony Stewart’s pit crew because the guy called him “Daddy’s boy.” That seemed to double his fan base. He talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll with Playboy, something his father obviously never would have done, and even THAT seemed to double his fan base.

He couldn’t lose them. Junior at 40 would look back on those years and see a driver who was a goof-off, someone who would show up five minutes before practice starts, unleash his extraordinary talent for driving a car, and then duck back into the trailer to play video games and to party.

“If I had that driver driving for me in the Nationwide Series,” Junior at 40 says, “I’d call him into the office, call him on the carpet, say, “What are you doing out there? … What in the hell are you thinking?”

Well, Junior in those days was trying hard not to think. It was all too much. He was too famous, too gifted, too sensitive. The year he turned 30, in 2004, he couldn’t lose. He won the Great American Race at Daytona (doubling his fan base once again). Then he won in Atlanta and Richmond and Bristol. All sorts of conflicting emotions were welling in him, so many he couldn’t keep them together. After he won at Talladega – his fifth victory at the track in his career — he took the points lead and someone asked him how he felt.

“It don’t mean s— right now,” he said. “Daddy’s won here ten times.”

The swearing cost him twenty-five points and the NASCAR championship lead. He never quite got it back. The car broke a rear-end gear in Martinsville. He got into an accident in Atlanta that, as he said, “I never should have been in.” After winning his sixth race of the year at Phoenix, he gave himself an outside chance to win the championship with a great performance at Homestead. Instead, he finished a distant 23rd.

“It was all so sporadic,” Junior would say. “I was never consistent. I’d have four great weeks and four bad weeks. I’d win one week and finish 33rd the next.”

After that year, the good weeks happened less and less. He won just once in 2005, once more in ‘06, and he didn’t win at all in ‘07. Then he left Dale Earnhardt Inc. and went to rich and famous Hendrick Motorsports – home of now-six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon – in an effort to win a championship. Instead things got even worse. He won just one race his first year. He didn’t win at all the next year … or the next year … or the year after that.

The Junior Nation fans, though, they still loved him – maybe even more than they had when he was winning – and the endorsement opportunities poured in, and he kept running away with the “Most Popular Driver” award. He didn’t know how to feel about that. Why was he so popular? Was it all his father? He treated people well, and he was honest to a fault, and he respected the sport and its history … he knew people liked that part of him. He did know that. But why couldn’t he drive fast anymore?

Junior says he was anxious all the time. He was nervous all the time. Junior felt an old fear reemerging.

“I just did not want to be a footnote,” he would say. “I just did not want to be a footnote in Dad’s story.”

 

Junior at 40 eats better. Junior at 40 sleeps better. Junior at 40 likes going to the track and working with his team; he talks a lot to the guys about their families or their pet projects or the dentist appointment that they just went through. Junior at 40 is more aware.

Junior at 40 has a steady girlfriend, Amy Reimann, and he says that she gives him something he hasn’t had in a long time – a second voice. “She has given me confidence outside the car, so I do things I typically wouldn’t do,” Junior says. “It’s as simple as having someone to talk to, someone to contradict your opinion about things, someone to help you see things a different way.”

Junior at 40 says he feels way younger than 40. He appreciates the experience, but he doesn’t even like mentioning the age. “Compared to my physical age,” he says, “I feel like I’m 10 years behind mentally. I have an understanding in life I should have had 10 years ago. I feel good, I feel young, my mind’s mentally young. I have a lot of passion still from what I’m doing.”

Dale Earnhardt chases his first Sprint Cup title this season. (Getty Images)

Junior at 40 is racing better than he has in a decade, maybe ever.

“I saw this thing in a movie,” Junior says. “It’s like: ‘When the game of life is over, people may remember the score for a while but they’ll always remember how the game is played.’ I know it’s a cliché, but I like that a lot. I sort of adopted that as a slogan when I was running good. I thought, ‘They’re not going to remember where I finished if I was a great guy and treated people well.

“But as you get older, the more and more true that becomes, I think. It’s not just a cliché. Once you’re done racing, people aren’t going to go, ‘He won X.’ People are going to ask, ‘What was he really like? What was he like to work with? How did he treat you?’ That’s the stuff that matters.”

 

Ages 37-39

Steve Letarte doesn’t know exactly what was going on in Rick Hendrick’s mind. Letarte had worked his entire career for Jeff Gordon, and that relationship on the track was languishing. In 2008, with Letarte as crew chief, Gordon failed to win a single race for the first time in 15 years. The next year was only slightly better. On the day Hendrick called Letarte into the office, he felt absolutely sure that he was about to be let go.

Instead, Hendrick told Letarte that he would become crew chief for Junior.

“I don’t think it was ever said,” Letarte says. “But we were both in positions in our careers where we both needed to improve. I went winless with Jeff Gordon. He’s underperforming at Hendrick Motorsports. It was a big kick in the gut for both of us.”

Letarte talks much faster than Junior. Words and eye contact come easily to him. He never looks at the ground.

“Rick,” he says, “is a genius for putting people together.”

Letarte and Junior feed off each other – Letarte is a perfectionist who obsesses over every detail, Junior a natural racer who understands the give-and-take of a 500- or 600-mile. “To him, racing is racing,” Letarte says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s go-karts or NASCAR. I’ve learned that from him. … I tend to overcomplicate things. He simplifies things. I think that’s how we help each other.”

“And all the stories now stay with the theme: Junior at 40 is growing up. The stories, Junior says, are true. The stories, Junior says, are not the whole truth. You know?”

They both finally won a race in 2012 at Michigan. But more to the point, they found themselves contending every week. Junior felt himself slowly changing, becoming more consistent, becoming someone his team could rely on both on and off the track. They won at Daytona this year, and they are still in The Championship Chase even if it will come down to Talladega.

And all the stories now stay with the theme: Junior at 40 is growing up. The stories, Junior says, are true. The stories, Junior says, are not the whole truth. You know?

“You know how when you’re a kid and you measure yourself on a door jamb?” Junior says. “You can’t see it. You make the mark on the wall, turn around, and see you’ve grown four or five inches or whatever. It’s like that. You or me, we look at the stats and we go, ‘Yeah, something happened. What happened?

“It’s hard to say. I got with Steve, and over that period of time, on a gradual scale, things got better. There wasn’t a moment that stands out. … Something happened, and that’s what everybody’s going to write about and talk about. But it’s, well, I don’t really know what it is. You know?”

 

Junior at 40 talks about the future. He is sad that Letarte is leaving the team, but he insists that it is much emotional for Letarte than it is for him. “His whole life’s gonna change,” Junior says. “For us, except for Steve, we’re keeping the whole team intact.

“We’re going to miss Steve, of course … but I hope fans don’t see this as our only opportunity. To me, I see no reason why we can’t be in the mix for two or three more years at least. I think that’s realistic, I really do.

Junior has grown famous through the years for being realistic or, as he likes to say it, “I see no reason to pump sunshine when there is no sunshine.” In years past, that realism has sometimes morphed into pessimism and despair. Jimmie Johnson can remember times in the past when he’s reached out to help Junior only to be politely turned away. “It wasn’t anything personal, Junior just likes to work things out on his own,” Johnson says. “But now, we talk a lot. We’ve both grown up a lot.”

Junior at 40 says he just feels more disciplined in his life. He still does the kid’s stuff, still plays video games a lot, still goofs around a lot. But he thinks about the future. He gets more involved with his business affairs – his Charlotte night club, his Nationwide race teams, his many endorsements and particularly his car dealerships in Tallahassee.

“I’m fascinated by the dealerships,” he says. “My father owned a dealership in Newton where I worked when I was younger, and he was very proud of the way that dealership was run. When I think about my days after racing, I think about what’s going to get me out of bed in the morning and be exciting. I think the dealerships might be it.”

That Junior thinks about his days after racing at all tells you something. But Junior at 40 is quick to say he doesn’t think very much about being 50. He thinks more about his Dad.

“I think he would be proud of what we’ve done on the race track,” Junior says. “I think that’s what would matter to him most. My personal life, he would probably be happy with where that’s been going. But I know he would be really proud of what we’ve done on the racetrack. I really believe that.”

And so when you ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr. what he still wants to do, he smiles and looks up into your eyes.

“I just want to make him proud,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always wanted. I think I’ve gotten out of that shadow. When they tell the story of Ralph and Dad, you know, maybe I’m a couple of pages now. Maybe I can get a couple more.”