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Having the ride of their lives
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The call goes out in the Talladega garage: "Has anybody seen Earnhardt?"

"Which one?" come back the shouts.

"Hell, both of 'em." NASCAR has asked the season's Winston Cup race winners to assemble for a group photo. No one knows where the Dales have gone.

"Junior was the first one here," assures his PR rep. "Well, where'd he go?" asks a NASCAR official, a little irritation starting to creep into her voice. "I don't know. His dad grabbed him, then they got in the pace car and took off."

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his father are enjoying their first season together in Winston Cup.

Rusty Wallace looks at Ward Burton, laughs and asks, "Did you say the pace car?"

It's hard to blame the Earnhardts if they run off for a little bonding time. For the better part of 25 years, Dad was on the road and Junior was back at home. For the first time in their lives, they are spending their weekends in the same place at the same time. A little father-son joyride can't be a bad thing, right?

"Wait-we've found them," the call crackles over the radio. "They're in the IROC garage. We'll tell them to meet you there. Wait ... they just drove off again."

No name has ever been more revered -- or feared -- in the annals of Winston Cup racing than Dale Earnhardt. Now there are two of them.

In March, Dale Sr. bagged his 75th career win; he currently is second in the points standings. By June, Dale Jr. had nabbed his first and second wins. Drivers beware: Senior's black No. 3 and Junior's red No. 8 have you surrounded, and below those wraparound shades are a couple of big ol' grins.

"There's no question about it," says Richard Childress, Senior's car owner, "Dale's having a blast. Those two are as much buddies as they are father and son. They're hanging around off the track, and they're beating people on it."

Junior, 25, is the leader of the most hyped crop of rookies in NASCAR history. Meanwhile, Senior, 49, has turned his horse away from a graceful gallop into the sunset to suddenly mount a charge at a record eighth championship.

"Little E" and "The Intimidator" ("Don't call me Big E," Senior warns) have their differences like any father and son. Dad drives a pickup, son drives a Camaro. Dad likes fishing in the Bahamas, son cruises the mall with his buds. Dad writes songs with Brooks and Dunn, son follows Third Eye Blind.

"The only thing he does that drives me crazy is sleep in," says Senior. "People want to compare him to Jeff Gordon, well, they've definitely got that in common. Sleeping late. He'll drag in here to the shop at like 10, 11, noon."

A big grin breaks out over Junior's face: "That's about right. I've already told the guys working over here (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.), if this place ever came under my control, they could start looking forward to coming into work about 6 o'clock at night and knocking off about 2 in the morning."

As in any household, the difference in the Dales' styles leads to one inevitability-the father-son chat. And as in any business, there comes a time when a race car owner needs to have a heart-to-heart with his driver. Take the Daytona 500.

Stifling rules restrictions turned the season's biggest race into the season's biggest bore. With 13 laps to go, the Dales were mired back in the pack. Dad decided to hook up with son so that they could draft together to the front. When son didn't agree, he got a friendly reminder to his back bumper at 190 mph.

"He listens okay," laughs Senior. "He's still a little hardheaded. Of course, when you run good and win a race or two, you start knowing too much. It's called the young driver syndrome."

"Yeah, I'm learning," concedes Junior. "It's funny because before I actually became a race car driver, I would watch Dad's races and would think that I knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. Now that I'm out here and see what's going on, I realize that I had no idea."

Senior himself suffered from young driver syndrome for about six years. Foes still tell horror stories of a young, bulletproof Earnhardt thrashing around the track. "He was very, very crude," laughs Richard Petty. "He was one of those deals where you see him coming, and you say, 'If he makes it, he'll be okay. But if he keeps driving like this, he ain't gonna make it.'"

Senior doesn't disagree: "Yeah, I was a little rough around the edges. But I'd have Richard and Bobby Allison and people like that coming up to me after races going, 'What the heck do you think you're doing out there?' I was listening when they were scolding me. I learned quick 'cause I had to."

There's no question about it, Dale's having a blast. Those two are as much buddies as they are father and son. They're hanging around off the track, and they're beating people on it.
Richard Childress,
owner of No. 3 Chevrolet

These days, father goes to great lengths to make sure son is at least a little more polished during these early career stages. Throw him into the deep end, but have a life preserver nearby just in case. It's always been that way.

When Junior was 6 years old, it was time for him to learn to water ski. To practice, Senior put him in the water, tied the ski rope to the back of a pickup and drove along the bank. On the last try, Senior drove a little too fast, jerked Junior up out of the water and into the side of the boathouse. Ouch.

"He learned how to ski, though," laughs Senior, who still gives Junior plenty of rope.

"Dad's done a good job of letting me go," says Junior. "And I'm sure every lap, every pass, he sees something I don't. But he lets us go on and do it. If we make a mistake, we learn from it."

It's a racer's way of teaching a racer, a practice that Senior learned from his father, Ralph. A short-track legend who stepped up to NASCAR only occasionally, Ralph was respected on every level of racing for his grit and no-nonsense style. His face was chiseled around the edges, much like Junior's is now, and his days were spent either on the road or in the garage. If he wanted to spend time with his dad, Senior had to do so at 5 a.m. beneath the race car or at Saturday night dirt tracks in places like Moyock and Shelby, N.C. Ralph died while working on his car in 1973, and every moment with his father remains burned in Senior's mind. "I remember Dad telling me the dos and don'ts of life. I never believed what he told me until it came true. That's how Dale Junior's gonna learn it too."

They talk on the weekends, but not a lot. At the track, no one talks to Senior for any length; he stays mobile out of necessity. Media folks, fans, friends-they all want a piece of the sport's biggest star. He'll sign an autograph, give an interview, but he's always on the move. He walks through the garage with a force that shuffles the four-deep pack backward, like cars in a restrictor-plate race. Not far off, Senior spots another slow-moving crowd. It's Junior, learning fast about his new 200 mph world.

"He's busy, and I'm busy," says Senior. "He comes down by the car every once in a while. We talk about what our cars are doing, and he asks for some advice, but not a lot. He's got a pretty good feel for the car."

Junior is the third of Earnhardt's four kids and the youngest from his second marriage. He lived near Mooresville, N.C., with his mother and older sister, Kelly, until the age of 5. That year, a fire forced his mom to move back home to Virginia, and the decision was made to move Dale and Kelly in with Senior and his third wife, Teresa. After a stint in military school, Junior returned home to roam the halls at Mooresville High.

By the time Junior caught the racing bug at 13, he had to fall in line behind Kelly and Kerry, his half-brother from Senior's first marriage, who had already started cutting ovals. All three ran late-model stock cars in central North Carolina and showed natural talent (Kerry, 30, still drives and won his first ARCA race in June). But Junior quickly emerged as the chosen one. He had the name, but more so, he had the ability that only another racer can spot.

"Junior was more aggressive about driving than his brother and sister," says Don Hawk, former president of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "Kelly had some business things going on, and Kerry worked for us over at the car dealership. Junior changed oil at the dealership, but all along he was pursuing a driving career."

Junior just nods matter-of-factly. "It's all I've wanted to do. I never even considered anything else."

Junior's development seemed to be following the exact trajectory of his dad's plan to field a Winston Cup team by the late '90s. But when Earnhardt decided to put his son in a Busch car in 1996, he raised more than a few eyebrows. However, those closest to the situation knew they had something special.

"One night, Dale and I were watching some old film of Ralph racing," recalls Hawk. "And Ralph's style was different than Dale's. It surprised me. It wasn't as smooth. A while later I went to see Dale Jr. drive for the first time, and I said, 'There it is.' It was like watching those old films of Ralph all over again. It was scary how similar they looked out on the race track."

The genetic thread that connects all three generations of Earnhardts is the raw need to beat the hell of the competition-even if that competition is blood. When the green flag drops, father refers to son over the radio only as "that 8 car." Junior never mentions Dad. "It's becoming more routine week after week," says Junior. "When we first raced each other in Japan [at a 1998 exhibition], I was looking for him every time I was on the track, during practice and the race. Now I don't look quite so hard."

At Richmond in early May, Junior passed his dad in the closing laps to become the first two-time winner of the season. When the race was over, the media closed in on Senior, who had faded on old tires to finish 10th. "Dale, are you headed to Victory Lane?"

"No," he shot back. "I'm going home."

"How about that boy?"

"We took two tires on that last stop and it really messed us up."

"That's what happened for you. How about your son?"

"I'm glad he won," he frowned. "'Cause we didn't have a shot." And with that, he stalked off into the darkness.

"Those lines are becoming more and more blurred on the track," says Junior. "The ones between dad, car owner and competitor. At Rockingham, I slid up into Gordon midrace. A few laps later, here comes Dad passing me. As he goes by, I see him shaking his finger at me. I didn't know if it was Dad saying, 'Be careful,' my car owner saying, 'Don't wreck your stuff' or the competition saying, 'Watch out, kid!' "

Everyone is watching out for the kid at Charlotte on Saturday night, May 20. It's The Winston, NASCAR's 20-car all-star race, and Little E is the brightest star on the track. He pulls off a gutsy last-second pit stop with eight laps to go and sets sail from the rear of the field. Sheet metal sparks and concrete dust flies as he slams his Monte Carlo into the outside wall, then keeps going. Two laps left, and Junior whips by Dale Jarrett for the lead on a cruel outside pass in Turn 3. Five corners later, he flashes under the checkered flag as the first rookie ever to win on the sport's biggest night.

All of the 170,000 fans rise to their feet, convinced they have witnessed the official coronation of NASCAR's next legend. Dale Earnhardt Sr. knows better. The smile, the moves, even the car number-he has seen it all before. This is the reincarnation of Ralph Earnhardt. As the fireworks erupt from the infield, the silhouette of a man is seen running across the grass from the track toward Victory Lane. Senior's sprint through the pits culminates in a prolonged embrace of Junior-undoubtedly the strongest outpouring of trackside intimacy ever seen from The Intimidator.

"I ain't believing that," Senior says. "It's hard to believe your kid can do something like that. He's out there doing things like we used to do, the things that great, great races are made of. They'll be talking about this for a long time."

"This is the greatest," shouts Junior. "Know why? 'Cause it makes Daddy happy. That's number one, keeping Pops happy. For 20 years, I've tried to make things as hard as I could on him. Now we've turned it around, and I'm doing good for him."

Showered in champagne, Gatorade and Budweiser, the Earnhardts stand atop the tower in Victory Lane and survey their Winston Cup kingdom. Senior leans over and whispers privately to Junior, drawing a rousing laugh from both. They aren't owner and driver up on that podium. Or friendly competitors. They are, just simply, father and son.

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