Junior's contradictions add up to freedom

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a case study in contradiction.

He never expected to be any good, but he's one of the best stock-car drivers in an era filled with first-rate talent.

He calls himself shy and sometimes seems uncomfortable with celebrity, yet he's on your TV selling products with flair, even making a sitcom appearance last year.

He gravitates toward the celebrities he finds to be down-to-earth, yet when Junior and his friends roll through small towns, it's likely in a stretch limousine suitable for Rodeo Drive.

He's obscenely rich, finally splurging this offseason and buying himself a Lear jet (used, not new, he stresses), but he's known to be frugal and truly enjoys staying at home and heating up a frozen dinner.

Junior openly and graciously will discuss his late father with just about anybody who asks, yet he also has said he wishes he didn't have to talk about his father so much.

If it's true that everyone at any point in time is a work in progress, Junior, at 30 years old, is rounding into an American icon with genuine charm and charisma. And while he's doing this, he's also taking control of his life.

Junior is flat tired of being told what to do or, get this, feeling as though he's not being taken seriously.

This last bit is shocking considering a majority of the 75 million estimated NASCAR fans hang on Junior's every move, on or off the track. But it also shows perception and reality aren't mutually implied.

Maybe that's why Junior doesn't seem the slightest bit worried about taking what any reasonable observer would consider the biggest gamble of his career, one of the biggest in any sport, by swapping himself from a team that nearly won last season's Nextel Cup title to a team that didn't even come close.

By giving DEI teammate Michael Waltrip the keys to his kingdom, which includes his cars, his car chief and all of the crew that helped Junior win six races last season, driver No. 8 is showing the world -- not just telling it -- that he is ready to do things his way.

"I want a situation like everyone else has, you know what I mean?" Junior said. "The family deal was tough."

The family deal, in this case, was Tony Eury Sr. -- his uncle, and crew chief before the swap -- and Tony Eury Jr. -- his cousin, and car chief before the swap.

Those who listened to scanners during races know full well what Junior is talking about when he says the bad times were very bad. Perhaps because they are family, Dale Junior and Eury Jr. would throw words around that made Junior's infamous slip of the tongue on national TV last season seem like children's theater.

Most believed the love-hate relationship mended each night over a round of beers and pats on the back after the heat of the day's battle, and while it often did, the toll on Junior clearly was more than most understood.

There were days when he simply didn't want to go to the racetrack. The 36-race season, in his opinion, is already much too long. Throw in a steady diet of family feuding, and something had to change.

"Me and Tony Jr. used to have a hard time making decisions," Junior said. "Because we would have different opinions and neither one of us wanted to upset the other, or take the responsibility if it failed."

Junior is hoping his new crew chief, Pete Rondeau, is quick and decisive -- even if it means Rondeau makes a decision Junior doesn't like. Just make the call and let the chips fall.

After finishing second in a 150-mile qualifier on Thursday, which put him fifth on the grid for Sunday's Daytona 500, he was relaxed in the media room. When asked whether the swap would benefit Waltrip -- who had just nipped Junior in the qualifier -- more than it would help Junior, he didn't hesitate in his answer.

"If that's the question that comes to mind after watching one race, that's a quick assumption," he said. "But it's obviously going to help Michael a lot. He gets in a car that won six races last year.

"For me, I don't look at it as going backwards at all. I never would have done it if I felt that way. I don't feel like I've given up anything or deprived myself of anything. I've made a lateral move that's better for me personally.

"Just to be able to get along with somebody and not have to take every question and worry back to the bus ... I trust and believe in what [Rondeau] says, and over time I'll know more about his knowledge and how we'll work together. But it's been a breeze."

He also showed a playful side, both with some of his answers and with his attire.

Known to give his business handlers a hard time, sometimes in good fun and sometimes not, depending on the scheduling disaster at hand, Junior wore a bright yellow T-shirt with the words, "I shot J.R." stenciled on the front.

At the end of his post-race news conference, Junior stood up and dramatically turned around, revealing that the back of the shirt bore the name, "Rhodes." As in J.R. Rhodes, business manager for Junior.

If Rhodes ponders the joke for very long, he might get paranoid. After all, Junior already has dumped his team for a group that managed zero victories with Waltrip last season. Might he shoot his business manager next?

Seriously, though, Junior's sense of ease has been apparent from the time he landed in Daytona Beach. He let talk that DEI was in trouble roll off his back, even expressing a confidence that would qualify as boasting if anyone else were to say it.

Asked last week who should be considered the favorite going into the Daytona 500, the defending race champion put it this way: "Hendrick's [cars are] really fast; they might have the better cars. But when it comes down to who knows what to do and when to do it, I'm the best."

He illustrated that point Thursday, taking a car that wasn't handling so well and didn't have enough power when in front to do much more than act as a blocker, and rallying it to the front in the last couple of laps.

Waltrip used the draft to slingshot past Junior on the final straight, which Junior knew was coming, but he wasn't about to attempt a blocking move on his teammate in a qualifier.

Mike Skinner wound up taking third in the qualifier, and the former teammate of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Richard Childress Racing saw something in Junior that he recognized.

"Dale Junior is a heck of a driver," Skinner said. "He's learned a lot; he's a chip off the ol' block.

"I don't think they [DEI] lost anything, I think they were smart. They brought cars that might not have been as slick in qualifying, but they draft well. Dale Junior is the man. He's not the mailman's kid, there's no question there."

That last line elicited laughter from Junior, who these days is respected in the garage by any driver you ask. The party line goes like this: Junior has talent, and he handles the fame that initially came from his father gracefully.

Perhaps that's how it is now, but that's not how it felt along the way to Junior himself. He let insecurities mix with the burden of being Dale Earnhardt's son. He had to grow into the confident, cool person we see today.

"In the end, when it's over with, there will be a lot of things I accomplished that I would never have expected to," he said. "I've already done more than I thought I would. I didn't know if I was going to amount to a whole lot. Because, I didn't have a lot of things I enjoyed; and I didn't want to have to work a job I didn't like. If that was the case, I'd probably be jobless.

"I got this racing thing and I was scared I wasn't going to make it and do good in that because I've seen other drivers come in and not have success just because their dad's good -- it didn't mean I was going to be good. I've already got more money, more victories, and just done way more than I thought I ever would.

"I was pretty miserable the first couple years in the Cup series, but I've gotten a lot better in the last couple years. It's a lot more enjoyable for some reason, I don't really know why. It was really, really hard. It was a vise, you know, I felt the squeeze."

Again, those contradictions lurch into the story. Is Junior the smooth star you see on your television each night, or a tormented young man who never had much choice in all of this?

If you listen to Junior long enough, it becomes apparent he is a little bit of each, and neither at all. For all the wisdom Junior displays, it was only a few months ago when he dropped the s-bomb on live TV, drawing a fine and losing valuable points.

These contradictions have been on Junior's mind lately. The struggle between having fun with his friends -- Junior showed up with a black eye last year in Kansas after boxing with buddies during his 30th birthday bash -- and being professional is one he knows all too well.

"In my mind, I don't always grasp the big picture," he said. "And sometimes I say or do things that I would say or do in the company of close friends that I shouldn't say in certain company. Sometimes you get so comfortable in your own environment that you forget who all is watching and paying attention.

"I kind of wish I'd had a better understanding of that."

But Junior does understand it now. He understands most of what is going on around him, and beneath the "aw, shucks" demeanor lies a reflective soul who seems to grasp his own strengths and weaknesses not by intuition, but by careful thought. Which possibly is why he's prone to a mistake or two nobody would ever imagine he'd make.

What are some of Junior's latest thoughts?

He wants to chop six or seven races off the Nextel Cup schedule, and he thinks everybody in the field would love taking more than three weekends off in a 10-month season.

"It wouldn't make as much money, but so what?" he said. "There's places and things I want to go see and do, and I don't want to wait till I'm almost too old to do it."

He also has decided that it's OK to say no, guarding his time much more closely than he ever did before and hiring another handler to help sort out the details of a life filled with demands at every turn.

And by saying no, or speaking his mind on a subject, or choosing when to let somebody else make a decision for him and when not to, Junior is expressing his freedom.

Which is precisely why the big gamble, to Junior, isn't much of a gamble at all. It's a choice that makes perfect sense at this stage of his life.

To others watching, it's a risky move. It defies logic. Sterling Marlin has been around awhile, and he doesn't mince words on the team swap.

"If I would have won six races last year, I wouldn't have changed nothin'," Marlin said. "It's their business, but when you're winning races and your plans are going good for maybe winning the championship, I wouldn't have changed a thing.

"I don't know if it's an internal deal maybe they were bugging each other, I don't know. It takes a lot to get chemistry. You've got to be real good, you've got to believe in your crew chief.

"But it did amaze me when they did it," he said. "I've known Tony and Tony Jr. and Dale a long time, and I thought everybody was fine. I'd have been fightin' tooth and nail to have not changed nothin'."

It's the same sentiment expressed by Eury Sr., Junior's former crew chief who now oversees operations for DEI.

But ask Junior how he feels about this big gamble, and he shrugs it off as effortlessly as he slingshots off the rear quarter panel of a car he's drafting. Even in a worst-case scenario -- say, Junior misses the Chase for the Nextel Cup and NASCAR Nation flips its collective lid -- he has an out.

"Things change in the world; things don't stay the same forever," he pointed out. "I don't understand what the big deal is. If it don't work, change it again."

Another contradiction? Maybe. But it's pure Junior. The free Junior, not the miserable one in the vise.

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.