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Friday, September 28
Junior not alone in the driver's seat
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

The smile is more evident, the loneliness has subsided and the grief has given way to determination of going on to be the best he can possibly be.

That's a microcosm of what Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s life has been in the nearly 7½ months since his father, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, was tragically killed in a last-lap crash during the season-opening Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer alone when he steps behind the wheel.
For the first few months after his father passed away, virtually everyone was concerned with how "Little E" would be able to go on without the most important male figure in his life. How -- or if -- he could step up and assume his father's role as family patriarch. How his memory and flashbacks of his father -- particularly behind the wheel during a race -- might cause him to lose focus and concentration and leave himself open to a mishap.

Yet, Dale Jr. soldiered on. He knew there were pressures that were on his shoulders. He knew all eyes would be watching him. He knew it was time to grow up and become a serious man rather than the carefree young adult he had been the last several years.

That cathartic change, or evolution if you will, has come full-circle. The younger Earnhardt has indeed stepped up and admirably handled all the burdens that were placed at his feet when his father passed away. What's more, he's handled them with aplomb, grit and determination. He truly has grown up and has become the man he knew he'd have to be after his father's passing.

Last Sunday's win at Dover was the topping. The junior Earnhardt drove what quite possibly could be one of the best and smartest races of his life. He had fun doing it and took what many felt may have been the final steps out of the cocoon he had insulated himself into after Feb. 18.

And it was typical Earnhardt-like humor that not only paved the way to victory, it also made racing fun again for Dale Jr., rather than what had evolved into nothing more than a job since the tragedy at Daytona.

It was three weeks earlier at Darlington that Earnhardt had mockingly chided his crew that when he was out on the racetrack, he felt like Tom Hanks' character in the movie "Cast Away."

"Y'all just make me feel like Tom Hanks out here, all alone," Earnhardt told his crew over the team radio. "I should just get a volleyball to keep me company (a reference to Hanks' 'co-star' and best friend in the film, a Wilson volleyball that he dubbed, quite appropriately, 'Wilson')."

Fast-forward to Dover last week and it was time for Earnhardt's crew to get a humorous payback. Not only did it make everyone have a good laugh, it also gave Earnhardt a companion and co-pilot that, if nothing else, helped motivate him towards reaching NASCAR's version of land: Victory Lane.

An Earnhardt team member went out and bought a volleyball, painted a face on it much like the one in the movie and presented it to him before last Saturday's final practice. Dale Jr. laughed and enjoyed the gag so much--but the best was yet to come. Unbeknownst to Earnhardt, the team mounted the ball to ride shotgun in his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet before Sunday's race.

Here's the humorous radio exchange that followed between Earnhardt on the racetrack and his crew in the pits:

Dale Jr. (during a yellow flag period early in the race) "I am watching the water temp … It's about 220 degrees (Farenheit) … I was worried because I remember back in the days when 210 (degrees) was all 'ya wanted to see…"

Jeff Clark (team engine specialist): "Hey man, Wilson says it's OK…"

Dale Jr: "There ain't no Wilson here…"

Tony Eury Sr. (crew chief): "Yeah, he's there, but I'll bet he's all swollen up from the heat inside that car…He's never seen heat like this."

Dale Jr. "Seriously? I don't see him…"

Tony Eury Jr. (car chief): "Yeah, he's right there - behind your water bottle…"

(dramatic pause)

Dale Jr.: "Hey! There he is! (calling out like Tom Hanks' character in the movie) WILSONNNNNNNNNN! He's in here man! I got a buddy …"

And with that, the pressure of competition and winning was suddenly wiped away in one jovial moment. Dale Jr. relaxed and drove an impressive race, and did indeed wind up at his original goal -- Victory Lane -- but only in a more light-hearted roundabout way.

"I think Tom Hanks is good in about any movie, but I think that 'Cast Away' is awesome, I guess, because I felt like I've been on a deserted island since my dad died in February," Earnhardt said. "You know, I'm surrounded by people all the time, and thousands of people at the track, but I feel all alone, 'ya know.

"I said that to some of the people close to me, and they thought it would be fun to surprise me with it in the car. Now that we've won with it, maybe it brought me some luck too, so we may have to have that ball in there from now on."

Earnhardt and his new slightly rotund and inflated co-pilot will be looking for their second win together as a team -- and Dale Jr.'s third victory this season -- in Sunday's inaugural Protection One 400 at the new Kansas Speedway in suburban Kansas City.

"Dover was a great win for all of us on the team," Earnhardt said. "We were fast all weekend, and we were great early in the race, but then we struggled a bit. We all stuck together and came back strong at the end of the race. When the money was on the line, we were the car to beat, and that was a great feeling."

Moving on up
The victory allowed Earnhardt to vault into sixth place in the Winston Cup standings. While he's still a long way behind points leader Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt is on the move and closing fast on those that are between Gordon and him in the standings coming into this weekend's event: Ricky Rudd (second place), Tony Stewart (3rd), Dale Jarrett (4th) and Sterling Marlin (5th).

"Look at our spot in the points: we are less than 100 points out of third place, and we were 26th when the month of April started!" Earnhardt exclaimed. "If we even dare to look behind us, there are guys just waiting for one bad race from us so they can pass us, but we're focused on continuing this momentum where we're running up front every race, every weekend. It makes it more fun to go to the track and get in that red car. I know we're gonna be badass each time."

Earnhardt likes the 1.5-mile tri-oval layout at Kansas, particularly the width and smoothness of the track, as well as the banking and transitions that evolve over the course of each single lap, going from flat to turn to bank and back to flat.

"We tested for a day at the new Kansas track, and I really liked it," Earnhardt said.

Unfortunately, his scheduled two-day test session at the new facility was cut short a day due to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

"The Bud team was supposed to test for a second day at Kansas, but we woke up to see all of the destruction of the terrorist attacks," Earnhardt said. "The medical helicopter had to leave the track, so we decided not to go back on the track that morning.

"Then, once we heard all of the U.S. air space was closed, we packed all of our bags and the crew into two rental vans and headed east on Interstate 70. We made it back to Charlotte about three in the morning. We might have made it sooner but I had to stop several times for CDs. You just can't drive halfway across the country without great music, ya know?!"

And Sunday, Earnhardt likely won't be able to drive 267 laps around Kansas Speedway or into Victory Lane Sunday afternoon without his new best buddy at his side, ya know?

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.

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