A couple of days removed from the greatest moment -- and not far removed from the worst moment -- of his racing life, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is dealing with rumors that the Pepsi 400 may have been fixed.
In my radio interview with him Tuesday, Earnhardt Jr. said he didn't hear about the controversy until he got to Seattle for the All-Star Game and was disappointed that anyone would think a fix could have occurred.
People are insinuating that NASCAR needed him to win at Daytona. If Earnhardt Jr. could win on the same track where his father died, the victory would right all the wrongs and put the controversy surrounding Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death in the past.
||After last weekend's race, Earnhardt Jr. was asked if he had a good cry yet? He replied, 'Maybe later on.' He will not act according to a script. He's not going to cry on national TV. What would his father think? ”
I told Earnhardt Jr. it seems the public wants to make him into an actor. We are waiting for him to break down and display a "made for TV" reaction because that's how we would react if our father died. Earnhardt Jr. agreed, saying people keep trying to make him be something he's not.
After last weekend's race, Earnhardt Jr. was asked if he had a good cry yet? He replied, "Maybe later on." He will not act according to a script. He's not going to cry on national TV. What would his father think?
While his father's death was obviously tragic, Earnhardt Jr. had just gotten close to his father in the last two years. His mother is not Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s widow, and Earnhardt Jr. admitted there had been tension between him and his father. But the relationship began to turn around. Father and son were two different people; Dale Sr. accepted his son for who he is instead of wanting him to be more like himself.
I asked Earnhardt Jr. about topical matters like the All-Star Game, taking batting practice, growing up a big fan of the New York Yankees (his father was a Braves' fan) and the Washington Redskins. He talked about the controversy surrounding the restrictor plates. People have said maybe NASCAR eased off the restrictor-plate restrictions, allowing him to have a faster car for the Pepsi 400.
Earnhardt Jr. says the restrictor plates slow the car down instead of evening the playing field. With restrictor plates, one car can still be faster -- or slower -- than another, and he still thought he had the fastest care at Daytona. So he was surprised to hear anyone would say NASCAR tried to fix the race so he could win.
But we both knew what was ultimately coming -- questions about his father's death. The only question was "when." When I asked him if it were cathartic to talk about his father, Earnhardt Jr. said it's hard for him to discuss. He doesn't want to sound stupid and has difficulty putting his feelings into words. In the next interview, I said, we would just talk about him and not his father. He liked the idea and said he hoped to win more races in the meantime.
Put yourself in his position: Earnhardt Jr. was both a spectator and a participant in the race that took his father's life. After he and his father had done their best to protect Michael Waltrip's Daytona 500 lead, Earnhardt Jr. went to the wrecked car and knew his father was dead.
It's difficult to ask a 26-year-old man to grow up and be the man his father wants him to be. It's difficult to go through the autopsy controversy with the Orlando Sentinel. It's difficult to expect him to put his feelings into words, to ward off the bitterness, and to understand and accept what has happened. But that's what Earnhardt Jr. is left to do.