The next best thing? Jeffrey Earnhardt is working his way up

A black car with white 3's on either side rumbles onto the red-clay track, weaving deliberately past the frontstretch bleachers and across the start/finish line. To look at the paint scheme and to glimpse the crystal-blue-eyed kid smirking from behind the wheel, you'd swear you were witnessing the second coming of Dale Earnhardt. You almost are.

Jeffrey Earnhardt, the 18-year-old grandson of the Man in Black, has returned to the Virginia hills and to the bullring that quietly launched his career four years ago. But the fans at Wythe Raceway don't pump three-fingered salutes
this July night. In fact, they hardly cheer at all. Instead, they treat Earnhardt as one of their own, not because he has a legendary last name but because he races like nobody knows what it is.

Jeffrey has the weekend off from NASCAR's minor league circuit, the Busch East Series. At his last race, in Greenville, S.C., his car was mobbed by hundreds of fans during a meet-and-greet. Tonight at Wythe, he's not looking to draw a crowd; he just wants to blend into it. "The name definitely gets you noticed a lot more and helps get you in a ride," says Earnhardt, whose dad, Kerry, is the oldest of Dale's four children. "I try to avoid it, though. I'd rather be treated like any of the other guys out here just trying to win a race."

Some of Wythe's regular racers are on vacation, so the car count is down this Saturday night, as is attendance. See, the county fair was this week, and the monster trucks were in town Tuesday. The raceway's owner, Fred Brown, says many fans can afford to come only once a week, even though the track offers $2 off with last week's ticket stub.

Earnhardt was also a last-minute addition; he arranged sponsorship just two days before the race. With such short notice, his car owner and racing mentor, Tam Topham, made the kid find his own backing, but gave Jeffrey's longtime sponsors a steep discount. So, for less than $400 each, Duke's Bar-B-Que and Cedar Springs Fish Farm are on the car for the 25-lap feature.

Jeffrey rolled in three hours before the first race of the evening, riding shotgun as Topham wheeled the nicest truck on site down a dirt embankment to the infield parking. Jeffrey's girlfriend, Meredith Jones, squeezed between the two men up front, while crew member Chris Grubb and Topham's nephew Taylor crammed into the back. Most other cars arrived on flatbeds pulled by dusty pickups displaying Southern pride with Dale Earnhardt or Virginia Tech license plates, or decals like the one that warns, "Back Off City Boy."

The 47-year-old Topham, stocky and squarejawed, owns three nearby motorcycle dealerships and has provided the young Earnhardt with nearly every car he's ever raced. They first met a decade ago. Jeffrey's parents would bring him up to his stepmom's hometown of Rural Retreat, Va., to spend summers with his grandfather, Richard Cline. A former local racer with an easy drawl, Cline had introduced Jeffrey to the track as a young boy and to Topham when he was ready to race. Just four summers later, that 14-year-old who debuted in a Yugo is primed for takeoff.

Now, just talking about Earnhardt's progression from this tiny dirt track to the Busch East Series makes Topham get a little misty. "Jeffrey puts tears in my eyes," he says. "He's the kid I never had." And don't even get him started on Jeffrey's work ethic. They'd spent last summer working all day at a dealership, then tuning race cars until midnight. By the time Jeffrey's junior year started, back at Mooresville High in North Carolina, he could build a body, weld joints and install a setup.

Tonight his car is intimidating, all black from front to back, with the same No. 33 Kerry has run at times in NASCAR. The front fenders arch high and the nose tucks low to the ground. The machine looks menacing, like a broad-shouldered bouncer, arms folded, checking IDs at the door. And yet somehow, it's the prettiest thing at the track -- aside from Jones, of course. Just above the driver's door is a red-and-white decal with "Slick E" in fancy block letters, a nickname Grubb gleefully attributes to Jeffrey's habit of spinning out. The crew finds this hilarious, and so does Jeffrey, or else it wouldn't be on the car.

Sitting atop a dusty wheel well, the teenager patiently layers onto his helmet visor sheets of plastic that he'll rip off during the race. He considers himself a calculated racer, nowhere near as aggressive as his grandfather, but he won't have to be as cautious with his career. He signed a development deal with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in February and plans to run a handful of Busch Series races for the team in 2008.

Before he runs a full season, though, Jeffrey must finish his senior year at Mooresville. His Busch East schedule already calls for him to miss six days this fall, and any more absences will require Saturday-morning makeup classes. "I know my grandfather would want me to graduate, because he didn't," Jeffrey says. "My dad didn't finish high school either, and he really wants to see me get that diploma. I can't let racing ruin that."

But make no mistake, this Earnhardt's future is in the family business. "Racing's in his blood," Kerry says. "He's not going to be a college student. So we knew we should get him some seat time."

The last of the evening's five races doesn't begin until past 10. Jeffrey's anticipation and confidence build, even though he's starting seventh in a field of 13 cars. When the green flag flies, he quickly finds himself door-to-door on the high line. He slings the machine sideways entering each corner and feathers the wheel and throttle to straighten upon exit. Then, 10 laps in, he is suddenly off the pace. He enters the pits and explains that the car shuts off in the corners before roaring to life on the straightaways. Perplexed, the crew does nothing but send him back out, and mysteriously the fuel pickup problem is gone.

After finishing next-to-last, Earnhardt hops out and peeks under the hood as Topham slides beneath the car. Visibly frustrated, the kid stands with his arms folded, as the top half of his driving suit hangs at his waist. "If it always went your way, everyone would want to do it," Jeffrey says, staring blankly at the car. "The uncontrollable things are the toughest to accept."

Faulty fuel lines aside, he knows his future is bright. With his uncle, Dale Jr., moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Jeffrey is positioned to become the next Earnhardt in a DEI Cup car. He grins at the thought. "I didn't realize I wanted to race so much until I got older and started coming up to this dirt track," he says. "Now here I am."

Back where it all began, back where he'll always be welcome. After all, every race ends right where it begins.

This story first appeard in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 10 edition. Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.