"I think it's important that the fans know the initiative I've had over the past several years to become a grown-up. I am striving to be the total package: a mature, dedicated, motivated race car driver."
He's NASCAR's most popular driver and the son of a seven-time Cup Champion. You can see him in commercials, TV shows, movies and magazines. He's appeared in music videos and has befriended rock musicians. His name and face have appeared on beer cans, video games and even buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
He used to drive for his father's company and his sister would pay his bills. He played computer games and surfed the web or would party until early morning and then sleep until noon the next day—sometimes blowing off appointments.
NASCAR may have been ready for Earnhardt Jr. but it didn't seem Earnhardt Jr. was ready for NASCAR. However, life couldn't be better for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The kid had everything and everyone at his fingertips, not a care in the world.
Until February 18, 2001 at the Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt Jr.'s family, friends and fans saw a change in him. After that, he went from young man to head of the household.
He made a decision and more likely, put all his grief and emotion away and showed up at Rockingham, North Carolina the following week and chose to keep racing.
His father's fans became his fans and the magnifying glass that was already there, became bigger. When you're one of the official rock stars of NASCAR and you have the last name Earnhardt, your every move is either praised or criticized. The fans will come to love you or hate you, there's hardly ever an in between.
He's constantly being compared to his famous father and is expected by many to match his accomplishments. After all, everything was put in place for Earnhardt Jr. to succeed.
"And you will never hear me complain about being brought up with the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. But don't for one minute believe that I had everything handed to me, though. If you knew my father, you would never think that."
A week before his emotional victory in the 2001 Pepsi 400, he walked his sister Kelley down the aisle at her wedding, a job originally scheduled for his father.
He was now on his own and it was time to start taking control of his life and career, but not without asking himself, "How would Dad do this?" and "How would Dad do that?"
He "officially" signed a contract with Dale Earnhardt, Inc and focused on trying to win his first Sprint Cup title.
The partying ended and to prove it he moved Club E out of his basement and prepared to make a real place for his friends to hang out. That dream became a reality this past year when he opened Whisky River in downtown Charlotte.
In 2003 he released his own DVD "Dale Earnhardt Jr. Any Given Day" to show fans what his schedule may entail week-to-week and to have an all access pass to everything Earnhardt Jr. It was produced by his own production company, Hammerhead Entertainment, the same company that helps put his show "Back in the Day" on Speed Channel.
He also started making more mature choices and trying to prepare himself for life after his driving days are over. He owns two late model cars in the Hooters Pro Cup circuit and in 2004 he began co-owning a Nationwide Series team with step-mother Teresa Earnhardt. In both 2004 and 2005 the Chance 2 team won the Nationwide Series Championship with driver Martin Truex Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. also enjoyed his best season on the Cup circuit in 2004 when he won the Daytona 500 six years to the day after his father won his first and only 500, February 15. He would win five more times that year and was in contention for the championship all the way down to the final race in Homestead where he finished fifth in points.
Earnhardt Jr. then decided he wanted more control in issues that involved him.
"When he (Dale Sr.) was alive, people treated you like you were a punk. You knew at the end of the day, anything he said or did overrided your choices," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was doing whatever I was told. After he passed away...I got treated as more of an adult."
He began working with his sister Kelley to gain the legal rights to his name. Dale Earnhardt Inc. had them but it was his name and Earnhardt Jr. wanted it back—and he got it.
From there he took sole possession of the Nationwide operation, he renamed it JR Motorsports and moved it into his own shop he had built.
But while he was making small personal gains off the racetrack, on it he was struggling. In 2005 he switched crews with teammate Michael Waltrip and only won one race that year.
"I was like, yeah sure lets make a change. I'm at the point now where I know I can win six races anytime I want," Earnhardt said. "So why not? Let's try something else."
They tried it and it failed, he missed NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
His relationships with the Eury's and Teresa took even more hits, but he was able to call a truce with his uncle and cousin in order to prepare for 2006 and attempt to get back to the top.
However, things with Teresa never got better when before the 2007 season she made a comment in the Wall Street Journal saying, "Right now the ball's in his court to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality."
Earnhardt Jr. responded during Speedweeks by telling Teresa that he wanted fifty-one percent of the company his father built. He wanted to be hands on when it came to the racing aspect as he saw it would lead to more wins and championships.
The six month saga began.
When the name calling started and it seemed like everybody had an opinion Earnhardt Jr. was man enough to stand up and defend his step-mother instead of joining in. He was determined to set their differences aside to handle business behind closed doors, not in the media.
When they had something to announce they would announce it. So in May he told the world that he would be leaving Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. It was a decision that a grown Dale Earnhardt Jr. had made.
He stated he wanted to win more races and consistently challenge for championships, he also wanted to be more than just a driver.
With more pressure then ever and knowing he would have to prove himself all over again, Earnhardt Jr. signed with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports to create what many called the new dynasty in NASCAR.
Complete with a new identity, Earnhardt Jr. and company headed for Speedweeks and their first race together, the Budweiser Shootout. For all the people who said this would be a re-building year for Earnhardt Jr. and it would take time to gel with his new team, probably didn't like what they saw as Earnhardt Jr. claimed his first victory with his new team.
Since the Gatorade Duel race, his second non-points win, the first half of the season is exactly why Earnhardt Jr. signed with HMS, to be competitive and consistent. He's run well every week and had opportunities to win just could never close the deal. That was until Father's Day in June when he won at Michigan. He's also been in the top five in points for nearly the entire season.
So even though he's been slipping the past few weeks in the finishing order and points, Earnhardt Jr. is still off to the best start in his career and has tas good a shot as anyone to win the championship. The same applies for his Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski. Either way, 2008 will be significant for Earnhardt Jr.
His boyish smile is in full force, his baby blues have their sparkle back. In hindsight, Earnhardt Jr. is back and finally happy. Just like the young man back in his rookie season who was determined to make his father happy.
Only this time he's doing it without the image of backwards baseball caps and the numerous girlfriends on pit road; the only people standing next to him now are his family and Rick Hendrick.
However, something tells me that Little E, Junebug, isn't concerned about his image, he's just being Jr. Having fun, driving race cars, owning his own business, making his father proud, but most of all by being his own man—finally comfortable in his own skin.
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