Earnhardt Jr.: light-hearted master of spooky Daytona

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Updated February 19, 2012

As much as Dale Earnhardt Jr. loves trophies, he has no fondness for jewelry.  It scares him more than a pileup on the racetrack.  The defending champion of the Daytona 500, which runs Sunday (1 p.m. EDT) is basically engaged to Amy Reimann, but he hesitates to give her a ring because of his rare phobia.

He told ESPN’s Dan Patrick it’s a result of his older sister Kelley “terrorizing me . . .  chasing me around the house with necklaces.”

He recognizes he will at some point deliver a ring to Amy, but he’s not sure he will ever wear one himself.

This willingness to share his weaknesses is one reason NASCAR fans have voted him their favorite driver nine years in a row.  People can greet him at an autograph session or watch him on television for two minutes, and they feel like they know him as if he’s a favorite cousin.

By all accounts he’s a genuine good guy.  He’s forgiving and generous.  He let Kelley become co-owner of JR Motorsports, which hires many in the Earnhardt family.

Except for Daytona pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, who’s hosted Saturday Night Live, Earnhardt is the closest NASCAR has to a pop star.  He’s appeared in music videos for Trace Adkins, Jay Z, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow.

Earnhardt appeals to blue-collar workers even though his upbringing is upper-class and his musical tastes tend not toward country (Adkins aside) but to hip-hop and rap.

He recently celebrated his First Anniversary of Twitter, and he keeps his fans entertained with a stream of messages.  “I just decide to tweet whenever I have a moment,” he tweeted.  “I keep my phone in my pocket.”

Personality-wise, he’s opposite of his father, whose grim and taciturn demeanor fit his nickname of “The Terminator.”  Earnhardt  Sr. was never one to disclose fears of any kind.

Junior inherited the racing gene.  His instincts are uncanny.  But he lacks the single-minded intensity that made his father a seven-time Cup champion.

While Junior will never rival Senior in trophy accumulation, he’s better in the showcase event, the season inaugural, Daytona, which he’s won twice.

In 21 tries at this prize, Earnhardt Sr. won only once, in his next to last attempt.  In 2001 he became the first driver to die in the Daytona 500 when his car crashed into the wall on the last lap.  He was 49.  His son was 26 and had already won two races on the NASCAR Cup circuit.

You might think the memory of Daytona doom would create a massive barrier for Junior, that the steeply banked 2.5-mile tri-oval would haunt him.  For more than a year or two, anyway.  But the Speedway proved less daunting  than what he terms his “creepy” experience with jewelry.  He conquered Daytona in 2004, just three years after his father died there.

He won it again last year, giving promise he might go on to his first Cup championship.  He did not, though he did have his second-best season, winning four of 36 starts in the No. 88 Chevy of Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt at 40 is still in prime time for a car-racer, but nearing the twilight.  He will never be the workout/diet enthusiast that his teammate Jimmie Johnson is, but last year Earnhardt focused more on health and diet, which may have given him more stamina.

“I had to make changes,” he said.  “I had to keep letting out my driver’s suit.”

He’s hoping to improve this year with a new crew chief, Greg Ives, a respected engineer.  Some observers feel Earnhardt needs an engineer to make up for what he doesn’t know about technology.  While Johnson can talk to his crew during a race and precisely calibrate the sort of ride he’s having, Earnhardt will contribute little except, “She’s loose.”

For Earnhardt to repeat as a champion on a course he understands better than anyone, he has to communicate details with Ives, who can then make the right adjustments on the next pit stop.  They must develop rapport.  His previous crew chief, Steve Letarte, was a motivator, more a communicator than the scientist/mathematician Ives.

On Daytona media day, Earnhardt beamed about his prospects with the restructured team.  But doubts remain.  The crew got off to a shaky start when Earnhardt’s car failed inspection on pole day.  It did not meet minimal height.

So Earnhardt had to start from the rear in Thursday’s Duel-race qualifying.  But he still won the first race to claim the third spot in the 500.

Darryl Waltrip, retired NASCAR champion who’s part of the Fox telecast, told USA Today that Letarte and Ives are very different in their methods.  “Greg is more methodical and possibly more demanding.”  And he noted the problem engineers sometimes have as crew chiefs:  “When things don’t go right or the way they were scripted, they don’t know how to react, because it wasn’t in the book.”

Letarte helped Earnhardt through occasional moodiness that may be attributable to a life of both excessive ease and agonizing estrangement.  The driver once told the New York Times:  “My daddy never let us have friends over, ’cause he didn’t want them tearing up his new possessions.

“He never really did anything with me.  He never told me things.  We were raised by six or seven nannies.”

In 2006 Junior had a publicized falling-out with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.  In one of those not so private moments, she told a Wall Street Journal reporter that her stepson “has to decide whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality.”

Earnhardt replied:  “It’s frustrating to hear I should decide whether I want to be a race-car driver or a marketing tool.  In NASCAR, you have to be both.”

He’s correct about that.  It takes more than racing success to attract the corporate sponsorships that drive the NASCAR engine.

There may be some better drivers: Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, who was the 2014 series champion.  But when it comes to putting together the full star package, which this sport craves — perhaps more than any other – Junior Earnhardt is No. 1.


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