Chasing a Legend

"From a fan's perspective, they think it's Greek mythology. They think your father just chewed something up and spit out a piece of himself and you should be as good as he is right off the bat," says Kyle Petty about Dale Earnhardt Jr. on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

The year before his father died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, he wrote an essay about him that was later picked up by NASCAR's website. "No fire could burn his character, no stone could break it," Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrote. "Every step he takes has purpose. Every walk has reason."

Bloodlines helped mark the fast road, mapping a future that gave Dale Jr. about as much wiggle room as the turns at Darlington. He did what was expected of the son of a NASCAR icon: follow his famous father into racing. That was the easy part.

Dealing with a new life after Dale Sr.'s fatal crash tested the North Carolina native in ways he never imagined. His father -- friend and role model -- was suddenly gone, and Junior felt the absence long after the grieving ended.

"The part now that I didn't even realize, that I guess I didn't even think about or see coming, was having to worry," Dale Jr. said in 2002. "I worry whether THIS is the right thing to do, is THAT the right thing to do?"

In other words, what would Dale Sr. have done?

The neophyte NASCAR driver assumed the role of a decision-maker, his focus expanding as he became an active team member in his father's empire, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), and caretaker of a legacy. The "Big E" had set a high standard, winning a record seven NASCAR championships and 76 series races.

After Dale's death, many of his fans gravitated quickly to the young man in the No. 8 Chevy, who flashed some of his father's speed and savvy. After two wins and a 16th-place points finish in 2000, his first full season on the major NASCAR circuit, Earnhardt Jr. climbed to eighth the next year and had top-five finishes in 2003 and 2004, including a victory at the 2004 Daytona 500.

Though the chances of duplicating his father's success seemed remote, the two-time Busch Series champion became one of racing's most visible personalities and a marketing megastar. A hip guy with an unpretentious manner, Dale Jr. was voted NASCAR's most popular driver by fans four straight times (2003-06). It was a niche he didn't seek.
"I don't want to be here on a soapbox as the biggest and loudest voice of the sport," he said in 2004, "because there are other guys with a lot of knowledge."

Dale Jr. was born on Oct. 10, 1974, in Kannapolis, N.C., and grew up in nearby Mooresville, a small city in the shadow of Charlotte. His parents split up when he was a toddler, and he ended up with two mother figures, birth mom Brenda and stepmother Teresa, who took over DEI following his father's death.

Junior got bounced from a Christian school in seventh grade for bad behavior, then spent 1½ years at a military academy before attending Mooresville High School.

He started racing karts at 12 and five years later began driving a 1979 Monte Carlo on local stock short tracks, sharing rides with his half-brother Kerry. Older sister Kelley also raced.

Dale Jr., whose grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, was a NASCAR Sportsman champion, won three late-model features in 159 starts, a most modest start. Yet in 1996, DEI crew chief Tony Eury Sr. convinced Earnhardt to give his son a ride in a Busch race at Myrtle Beach. "You're wasting money on other people's kids," Eury said. "Why not waste it on your own?"

Dale Jr. qualified seventh for the race and finished 14th.

After one top-10 finish in eight Busch events the next year, he won 13 times in 1998 and 1999, taking two series points championships.

Backed by a reported $10-million-a-year Budweiser deal, he moved up to run five Winston Cup races in 1999 and had one top-10 finish. While the 24-year-old hoped to merely qualify in races and achieve respectability, many in the racing world sought more, eyeing a challenger to champion Jeff Gordon.

"He should be real competitive," Gordon said, adding, "I just hope that people don't put so much attention on him that he has more to worry about than just driving the race car."

No such luck. Junior's publicists couldn't keep up with the requests in 1999, lining up more than 70 sponsor appearances, about double the number for most NASCAR drivers. His press conferences were jammed.

"I'm at the time in my life where I'd like to get with my friends and kick back," Dale Jr. said early that year. "That is short-lived."

As his career built, there was less and less time to listen to music or drink beer with his buddies in his lavish basement hangout dubbed "Club E." The NASCAR boom, launched by his father and his contemporaries, now had another Earnhardt to give it lift, and he begrudgingly became the sport's biggest celebrity face.

An aggressive, clean driver with good car control, Junior performed capably in his rookie season of 2000, winning at Texas and Richmond and gaining five top-10 finishes.

The following year began with a runner-up finish to Michael Waltrip at the Daytona 500, the race in which Dale Sr. died in a last-lap wreck. Junior himself crashed the next weekend at Rockingham, placing 43rd. He got three wins that season, the most emotional coming in a return to Daytona in the Pepsi 400, where he passed six cars in the final six laps. Dale Jr. was greeted by crewmen from several teams, all caught up in the moment.

"I don't know how to put it in words," said Tony Eury Jr., his car chief and cousin. "Dale [Sr.] was like a dad to me, and this puts a little bit of closure on what happened."

In 2002, Earnhardt suffered a concussion in an April crash at California Speedway, then after struggling in midseason, rebounded with six top-10 finishes in the final eight races. He ended up 11th in series points.

A master of restrictor-plate racing on the superspeedways, Earnhardt won at Talladega for the fourth straight time in April 2003 and went on to place third in points that season, 207 behind champion Matt Kenseth.

Any concerns that he was partying too hard or generating too many endorsement deals all but vanished as Junior spent more time than ever with his crew in the garage. The work's richest reward work came at the 2004 Daytona 500, where Earnhardt passed leader Tony Stewart with 19 laps to go and won NASCAR's showcase race.

"He's as talented as any driver out there," Kenseth said, "so there's no question he can do it."

Earnhardt won five other times in 2004, proving he could also handle the short and intermediate tracks, and ended fifth in the points race. He was slowed by a fiery July crash in Sonoma, Calif., where he was testing a Corvette for an American Le Mans Series event and suffered severe burns. Another blow came in October when he received a 25-point penalty for letting a vulgarity slip on live television after a win.

Martin Truex Jr. added to the big year by winning the Busch Series championship. Truex drove for Chance 2 Motorsports, owned by Earnhardt and his stepmother, Teresa, and the victory gave Junior titles as a Busch driver and owner.

Dale Jr. had a disappointing 2005 season. He changed crew chiefs for the second time in sixth months and cited communication problems with Eury. He placed 19th overall, winning just once, at Chicagoland in July. Dale Jr. didn't get to Victory Lane again until May 2006, snapping a 27-race winless streak with his 17th career victory when he took the Crown Royal 400 in Richmond.

In 2006, while Dale Jr. won just once, he finished fifth in points and collected $5.2 million along the way.