With his red baseball cap on backward, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked very much like the hotshot rookie he was when he arrived on the NASCAR scene last season.

But behind that exterior, it appeared Dale Earnhardt's death was quickly turning Little E into the man his father always wanted him to be.

"You'd probably find that Junior's maturity level has escalated a great deal over the last week," said Larry McReynolds, who got to know the younger Earnhardt while spending four years working with his father.

"You'll now find him to be a man on a mission to go out and win races, to run for championships, and to be everything his father always hoped for."

Since seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed last Sunday in a wreck on the final turn of the Daytona 500, his son has been thrown into a much larger role.

At 26, Little E is suddenly the family patriarch -- a job similar to the one Earnhardt took when his own father died in 1973 when he was 22. He's also expected to succeed a man whose accomplishments will be almost impossible to surpass.

"I miss my father and I cried for him out of my own selfish pity," Earnhardt said Friday in his first extended public comments since the accident. "We just have to remember he's in a better place that we all want to be."

In an open letter written by Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and published Friday in USA Today, she offered insight into the man Earnhardt Jr. is now expected to replace.

"The public Dale Earnhardt wanted to be the best," she said. "The competitive drive that burned inside of him gave him the passion to win. If he was racing, he wanted to win the most races and championships. If he was fishing, he wanted to catch the most fish.

"The private Dale Earnhardt, the husband and father and son and brother, wanted to be the best as well. He struggled with that at times. Emotions didn't come as easy to this man who stirred so much emotion in other people. But as his children grew and began making decisions of their own, he saw that most of the time, they made the decision by asking themselves, 'What would Dad do?' "

That's a question Earnhardt Jr. will undoubtedly be asking himself as he tries to fill his father's void. That effort essentially started this weekend, with qualifying for today's Dura Lube 400 starting Saturday.

Besides trying to achieve the same success, he's now got the thriving stable of Winston Cup cars at Dale Earnhardt Inc. to look after.

The three Winston Cup teams -- driven by Earnhardt Jr., Steve Park and Daytona winner Michael Waltrip -- are expected to compete for championships for years to come. It's up to him to keep that going.

"We've had to take some very deep breaths and get everything in perspective and it's really been a difficult time," Earnhardt Jr. said.

"The main focus now is to try to maintain and progress with the vision my father had with Dale Earnhardt Inc."

It's a big job for a kid who up to this point has been best known for his hard partying and hip looks.

He had been trying to move away from that image, on the advice of his father, after taking some lumps last season as a rookie driver for DEI.

He won two races, at Richmond and Texas, then won the Winston, NASCAR's all-star race. But things quickly got out of control.

His ego got too big, and his team noticed. He partied too much, and he told too many people about it.

His intensely private father stood back and tried to let his son learn his own lessons, but when he thought Junior crossed the line, telling the media about his wild parties in the basement he had turned into "Club E," the elder Earnhardt intervened.

"My dad said I probably shouldn't have said anything about the nightclub and at first I didn't think it was a big deal," Earnhardt Jr. said last October. "I let reporters come over to do stories and camera crews in, and after a while I was like, 'Dad's right, what am I doing? This is my house.' "

The talk sparked a change in lifestyle, Earnhardt Jr. has said. He toned down his image and recently talked about wanting to focus only on racing.

Now he has much bigger issues to deal with.

"There's been a lot of questions and things running around in our minds," he said Friday. "But the main thing now is to maintain and carry on with the racing program and to try to stick by Teresa the best we can."

"I miss my father and I cried for him out of my own selfish pity," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday in first extended public comments since the accident.