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February 13, 2003

Like father, like son
By Dan Patrick

Daytona International Speedway embodies both life and death for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The NASCAR star virtually grew up there watching his father race. And he watched his father die there in 2001 at the Daytona 500 -- on the last turn of the race's last lap.

Some might say coming to the Daytona 500 every year will be cathartic for Earnhardt Jr. But I'm not so sure. The race is a painful reminder -- every lap around the track is a reminder if he allows himself to think about it.

Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Sr., left, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona International Speedway in February 2001. Earnhardt Sr. died at Daytona later that month.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. uniquely embodies both the old and the new of NASCAR, which is something Jeff Gordon can't do. Because of his dad, racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., he has instant credibility with the old-school NASCAR faithful.

But he also branches out into the world of Generation X: appearing in a Sheryl Crow video, being a Playboy celebrity photographer.

Gordon will never be old-school NASCAR. True, he took the sport mainstream, making race-car driving palatable to a national audience. But Earnhardt Jr. can connect with both worlds, appealing to the younger generation while satisfying the diehard NASCAR fan. The future of NASCAR as a sport is probably tied more closely to Earnhardt Jr. than to Gordon, both in the racing and marketing realms.

Earnhardt Jr. is glad to talk about his latest on- and off-track endeavors, but he told me he's not that comfortable talking about himself. I wonder if that's because his father's loss is still too close chronologically and his grief still too much to express.

His father's fans don't know how to broach the subject of his death. It can be a fine line for anyone, but especially with the son himself: If you don't bring it up, are you being insensitive? If you do bring it up, are you being insensitive?

How do you pay tribute to someone like Dale Earnhardt Sr.? He left such a legacy of success and toughness and consistency. And when somebody dies before their time, their legacy takes on a mythological aspect. Since his death, Earnhardt Sr. has become a bigger figure than Richard Petty, the King of NASCAR, who's still alive. There's always the question about what could have been.

It seems that Earnhardt Jr. is bent on being his own person and establishing his own identity. Still, no matter what he does, he'll be compared to his father. With every passing year that Earnhardt Jr. doesn't win the Daytona 500, NASCAR's Super Bowl, the comparison will grow stronger. Earnhardt Sr. finally won the race on his 20th try -- in 1998, just three years before his death.

If there are indeed racing gods, Earnhardt Jr. will win the Daytona 500 before his career is done.
Earnhardt Jr. has won before at Daytona International Speedway, but his best Daytona 500 finish is second place, behind teammate Michael Waltrip, in 2001 -- the same race that claimed Earnhardt Sr.'s life (in fact, Earnhardt Sr. was listed as the 12th-place finisher that year).

If there are indeed racing gods, Earnhardt Jr. will win the Daytona 500 before his career is done. It would enable him to share something with his father again. As he said Tuesday on my radio show, he has a comfort level with the track from his close association with it over the years. "We were sort of made for each other," he said.

While he's been criticized for lacking focus and consistency, Earnhardt Jr. has the talent and financial backing to be a great driver. But there's so much luck involved in winning at Daytona. You might be the best driver with the best car, but your race could be ruined by somebody who bumps somebody who bumps somebody else who bumps you.

Will he win Sunday's race? I don't know. Will he someday win the Daytona 500? I hope so. A Daytona 500 win would take on a deeper meaning for Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- a meaning we would never understand and perhaps he could never put into words.

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