Dale Earnhardt Jr. has lived in the shadow of his father all of his life. From the time he started racing, he was known as little E. He then transitioned to just Jr. Lately, it's more Dale Jr., but the shadow of his father looms large and the pressure to get out from under it continues to build year after year.
This year, Dale Jr. finds himself on the pole of NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500, on the 10th year anniversary of his father's death there after a disappointing 2010 and a team shuffle. I am not sure if there can be any more pressure applied to this situation than what already exists.
Dale Jr. must contend with all the questions, memorials, articles and media surrounding the coverage of the 10th anniversary of his father's death at Daytona. He must contend with having won the pole of the biggest race of the year. He must contend with all the questions and musings wondering if he can become relevant on the track again and win. He must contend with a new crew chief and car crew.
He must contend with the questions like "Jimmie Johnson races for Hendrick Motor Sports and wins all the time, why can't you with the same outfit?" He must contend with those who think he needs psychological help. He must contend with walking away from the company his father gave his life to build.
The pressure has transformed the carefree, often smiling 30 something into a quieter, more somber, almost 40 year old who needs a win badly.
Dale Jr. still remains NASCAR's most popular driver. He sells the most merchandise, by far, of any driver. He continues this popularity despite his lack of wins on the track. Some of it is undoubtedly support from those who supported his father, but Dale Jr. is a fan favorite in his own right, outpacing on the track winners like Johnson and Jeff Gordon by miles.
The fans love him. But Dale Jr. doesn't love all this attention, especially over his father's death. I heard an interview with him this week in which he said he thought it was time for people to let the death of his father go. That he felt his father wouldn't want people sitting around talking about his death 10 years past on the eve of the biggest race of the season.
It surprised me, but then it didn't. For a man who continues to struggle to be outside of his father's shadow, it would only stand to reason that he would want to talk about the upcoming race, his pole win and moving forward. A man who constantly has to live in the past will never be able to move forward.
Dale Jr. has a unique opportunity this year to try and make the Daytona 500 final story about him with a win. But even then, even if he does win the race, it will still be cloaked in his father. It will be cloaked in the 10th anniversary of his father's death at the same track. It will be cloaked in the "can he continue to win" speculations. It will be cloaked in everything except a stand alone story of Dale Jr. winning the race. And that is why he will never move forward.....no one else will let him.