He has been stock-car racing’s favorite son from the moment he strapped into a 3,200-pound car for his debut in NASCAR’s top ranks, the 1999 Coca-Cola 600.
A wiry 6 feet, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was more shy than rebellious at 24 but eager to establish that he was his own man — not some mini-Meanie in the mold of his father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, who relished the role of the black-hearted Intimidator.
So the son bleached his auburn hair blond. He favored Nirvana over Brooks & Dunn. And he kept a respectful distance between his car’s nose and the next guy’s bumper rather than threatening to ram every shred of sheet metal in his path.
On Sunday, NASCAR’s favorite son returns to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 a bearded, fully grown man who friends say is finally at ease in his own skin.
And, by his own account, NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver is obsessed with winning in a way he wasn’t a decade or so ago.
“When I was younger, I was much more naive and distracted and interested in just having fun. The focus wasn’t always there,” said Earnhardt, who will turn 40 in October , during a recent interview in his team’s transporter truck.
“I didn’t let a bad run drag me down. I didn’t let a bad performance bother me. I didn’t obsess over a good performance, so I didn’t seek it. And it didn’t happen. Now that I’ve got this obsession for it and this drive for it, I think it propels me to seek it and obtain. But it’s a bit tortuous.”
In 15 seasons in NASCAR’s Cup top division, Earnhardt has run 516 races and logged nearly 200,000 miles — the rough equivalent of 35 cross-country trips. He has won 20 races, including two Daytona 500s. But he’s still chasing a Sprint Cup championship.
His 2014 pursuit couldn’t have started better, with his second Daytona 500 victory.
Heading into Sunday’s 600-miler, NASCAR’s counterpoint to the Indianapolis 500, he is fourth in the point standings, having posted six top-five finishes through the season’s 11 races to date. And his No. 88 Chevrolet, decked out in a special “Superman” paint scheme, was fastest in the opening practice (193.264 mph).
Though Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval is his “home track,” not far from his own spread in Mooresville, N.C., just north of town, Earnhardt has never won its 600-mile classic. Sunday represents his last chance to do so with Steve Letarte, the crew chief who has called race strategy and alternately calmed and cheered him over the radio since 2011.
“He’ll be hard to replace,” Earnhardt said of Letarte, 35, who announced in January that he’ll leave at season’s end to become an NBC Sports analyst. “But it’s the nature of the sport and part of life.
“Things come and go and move in and out of your life. You just have to know, change is going to happen. You have to be willing to adapt.”
That was the narrative of his formative years.
Earnhardt was 3 when his parents divorced, and he and his elder sister, Kelley, lived primarily with their mother in Norfolk. They rarely saw their father, who was struggling to make his name as a stock-car racer. And in seventh grade, Dale Jr. was sent away to military school after the father he barely knew remarried, with his sister enrolling, too, to look after him.
His father, who spent much of his life wishing he hadn’t dropped out of high school, grew up instead in the school of hard knocks. He’d work all week to race all weekend, but his paychecks from the cotton mill didn’t come close to paying for the cars he’d wreck and the engines he blew.
Even after Dale Earnhardt earned his first million as a NASCAR champion, he believed in rearing his three elder children in a tough-love way. Dale Jr. serviced cars for a time at his father’s Chevrolet dealership. And as an aspiring racer on the Carolinas’ short-track circuit, he had to rebuild whatever he wrecked.
“When I was young and going through that process, it really felt like he was making it challenging,” Earnhardt recalled of his father. “But when I look back, I realize I had it better than most people. He would give me the tools and say, ‘Here, man. You can take this and build it up, or you can ruin it. You decide what you want to do with it.’
“He was such a terrible dad when I was like 4 or 5; he was just never around. He was racing all the time. We’d never see him. But whether he knew it or not, he turned into this guy that really had a huge impact on us and really taught us a lot and helped us understand the value of things.”
Father and son were closer than ever at the time of Earnhardt’s fatal wreck, according to Jade Gurss, Dale Jr.’s publicist at the time and co-author of “Driver No. 8,” the best-selling memoir of the 2000 season.
As NASCAR fans grieved, Dale Jr., then 26, grappled with a far more profound loss — of his father, his boss, his business and financial adviser and his hero. And the NASCAR garage and much of the sport’s fan base put a collective arm around him, as Gurss recalls it.
“People felt protective or perhaps parental of him, having seen him so publicly go through such a horrible tragedy,” Gurss said. “To this day, people make fun of Junior Nation [as his legions of fans are called] as a bunch that’ll chew somebody’s arm off if they say anything bad about him. But the flip side of that is they really empathize with him.”
Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, 67, a Fox Sports analyst and longtime rival and friend of the elder Earnhardt, says that it many ways, the sport’s fans still haven’t gotten over the champion’s death.
“To this day, you go to a racetrack and not a day goes by that Dale isn’t talked about it as if he’s going to be there this weekend,” Waltrip says. But he feels Dale Jr. and his siblings came to grips with the loss long ago, well before fans or the sport in general.
When Waltrip looks at Dale Jr. today, he sees a man at peace.
“I think he’s real content right now,” Waltrip said. “It’s not just in his racing life, but in his personal life. His girlfriend [Amy Reimann] has had a big influence on him and really brought him out of that little boy shell he lived in.”
The never-married Earnhardt Jr. has dated Reimann, a 2005 Kentucky graduate and former Wildcats cheerleader, for the last several years. Speculation about their nuptials is a popular topic in Junior Nation, as well as the National Enquirer, and the couple tend to play along without divulging much of consequence. On Friday, Reimann tweeted to her 35,000 followers, “@DaleJr just handed me a ring box y’all,” accompanied by a photograph of a Daytona 500 champion’s ring on her ring finger.
Earnhardt is among the sport’s most well-loved and well-paid drivers, having collected $84.8 million in winnings and far more in endorsements with companies such as Chevrolet, Nationwide Insurance and Wrangler jeans. And he’s its biggest crossover star, having appeared on 50 magazine covers and in music videos with Jay-Z, Staind, Sheryl Crow and Three Doors Down, among others.
But at his core, he is a man without pretense — an avid Washington Redskins fan since age 8 who doesn’t count himself a professional athlete but “just a guy that drives fast cars.”
And he is his father’s son.
“I just carry a responsibility to his heritage, to the name,” Earnhardt said. “All his fans always talk about him and talk to me about him, so I know there is a responsibility to do right and represent him well. To not stick my foot in my mouth and not be an idiot, which is not my nature. But just to be good, to be kind and fair.”