I remember the first time I saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. race. It was at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina, and Junior was running a Late Model in a warm-up race for the day's NASCAR Busch Series event. About the only thing that stood out in my mind was the name. Junior ran well, finishing about third, but no on-track fireworks or domination.
Still, with a name like Dale Earnhardt Jr., I knew I would be seeing this guy again one day. And, sure enough, before long he was running an occasional Busch Series race, trying to claw his way into a full-time ride. Again, I could only imagine how far he'd go.
Then came Junior's breakout year, 1998. His first Busch Series championship. The kid was for real, and he had a genuine personality to boot.
The day after Junior won that championship, I was involved in a project to gather all the 1998 NASCAR champions for a photo shoot in Miami. The final two people to arrive were Junior and Ron Hornaday, who had won the Craftsman Truck Series championship that season driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. It was obvious from the start that that the two hadn't seen any sleep the night before, out celebrating Junior's newly won championship.
For some of the pictures, the drivers needed to change clothes. While the other drivers had used a bathroom down the hall to make the changes, Junior and Hornaday stayed put. There, in front of the other champions, their wives, and the photography staff, Junior dropped his drawers and made the change.
It struck me funny at the time, watching the blushing women and hearing the snickers. But it also gave an early indication of how a kid thrown quickly into the limelight would find a way to be himself. Junior was there to have a good time, and he was going to make the most of it.
Now Junior's all grown up and maturing more with every week he competes in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. But the kid inside is never far behind. In fact, since the death of his father, Junior has been dedicated more to just being himself. The result is something unlike you'll see anywhere else in the Winston Cup garage. And boy, did the sport ever need a kid like Junior.
Listen to how Junior described his perfect day to Stock Car Racing Associate Editor Larry Cothren:
"Getting up around 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock, and going into town and getting something to eat from Pie in the Sky, the best place in the world to get some pizza. Then hanging out at the shop with the guys, stopping in to say hey to them, and checking out the car for the next race and making sure everything is OK. Then going to the shop in my backyard and hanging out with my buddies. Maybe tuning on an old car of ours or something that we've got, doing some kind of work until about five o'clock. Then everybody goes and gets showers and we head down to a local bar and drink some beer and hang out and tell stories and laugh at each other."
All that and no mention of sponsors, taking it one race at a time, or one of those racing deals. Just an honest answer to an honest question. A little color from the all-too-often black and white world of big-time stock car racing.
Yes, the pressure is on Junior to perform. As the saying goes, "You can get by on charm for about 15 minutes. After that, you better do something." Junior's off-track performance, however, should make others take note. No, other drivers don't need to start wearing their hats backward, or slip on some Adidas tennis shoes. But they could do the sport proud by following one simple piece of advice: Be yourself.
You can reach Editor David Bourne via e-mail at email@example.com, or by writing to: Stock Car Racing, 5555 Concord Parkway South, Suite 330, Concord, NC 28027.