Junior took a backseat to big sis Kelley

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Any column that begins with the words "the man next to me in the hot tub said ... " puts me at risk of being the butt of many jokes, but it's essential to the theme so please refrain from one-liners until you hear all the facts.

The scene was the Sanibel Island (Fla.) Harbor Resort. It had been a long 2009 Sprint Cup season, and I just wanted to get away from anything to do with racing when I settled into the hot tub with one of those fruity tropical drinks.

Somehow I became engaged in conversation with a stranger who happened to be an executive with Anheuser-Busch. Upon discovering what I did for a living (next time I'm a shoe salesman from Idaho), he began telling me about a personal experience with the late Dale Earnhardt.

He actually had several stories, but we'll focus on this one because it's pertinent to the rest of the column.

This one involved the seven-time champion's talking about who might be the next great driver from the Earnhardt family tree. Earnhardt, he said, told how one of his offspring had everything -- aggression, mental toughness, a willingness to push the car to its limit -- to be a championship driver.

Earnhardt, he said, practically was gushing about how good this kid could be.

At this point I interrupted and said, "I assume we're talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr."

"Nope," the man said. "Kelley."

Not Kerry Earnhardt, the oldest of the four children. Not Dale Jr., the most popular. Not Taylor, who at the time wasn't old enough to drive.

Kelley, who co-owns JR Motorsports with Dale Jr., cousin Tony Eury Jr. and Rick Hendrick.

Brain freeze set in. Not from the tropical drink.

The man just told me "The Intimidator" said Kelley had more of what it took to be a great driver than Dale Jr. Of course, there was no way to confirm that the man's conversation with Earnhardt really took place, but he looked honest enough and as far as I could tell he hadn't had the first sip of anything with an umbrella attached.

But it got me to thinking, particularly when I returned to Charlotte to find Kelley had finalized the deal to bring Danica Patrick to JR Motorsports. Was she really that good? Could she have been to NASCAR's diversity movement what NASCAR hopes Patrick becomes in two or three years?

"She could have had a lot of opportunities had it been a different environment and a different culture and a different climate," Earnhardt Jr. said. "She was hardheaded and tough and drove hard. She would eventually have polished her abilities to where she would have been a pretty good race car driver at the higher level."

By different environment, Earnhardt Jr. meant a racing world that accepted women.

"The sport in the mid-1990s, it wasn't welcoming to women," Kelley said.

Had it been, Kelley might be the Earnhardt driver fans can't get enough of instead of her brother, who has won NASCAR's most popular driver award seven straight years. She had the potential, according to those who competed with and against her, to be that good.

"She was very good at what she did," said Eury, who will serve as Patrick's crew chief in about a dozen Nationwide Series races this season. "I raced her several times over at Tri-County [Racetrack in Brasstown, N.C.]. We thought she probably had as much or more talent than any of them."

By them, he meant the Earnhardt kids.

"She was just so aggressive," Eury said.

Earnhardt Jr. saw that as well.

"She was hardheaded as hell," he said. "That old saying you can't push a rope, you can't tell somebody to drive into the corner deeper but you can tell a driver if they need to back off if they're overdriving ... that was her.

"She was one of them that started overdriving the car from Day 1, and that was good."

Like her father, Kelley didn't back away from anything, anybody or any challenge. It's an attribute many fans would like to see more of from her brother after a 25th-place finish in the '09 Sprint Cup standings.

"She got pushed around a lot and she didn't take s--- off anybody," Dale Jr. said. "I've got a lot of funny pictures of her with her face red as hell after a couple of incidents. She was so, so competitive and so damn upset if things weren't going the way she thought they should.

"I enjoyed when we were racing together."

Earnhardt and Eury didn't race against Kelley often as she competed at Tri-County, Hickory Motor Speedway and Myrtle Beach Motor Speedway, but each experienced what it was like to lose to her at least once.

And it wasn't pleasant.

"Pops [Tony Eury Sr.] let me have it so bad I tried not to ever let it happen again," Eury said.

Dale Jr. got the same hard time from his dad, who eventually gave his son a job working on Kelley's car.

"When I was fired from [my dad's] dealership, I went to Dad and said I need a job," Dale Jr. recalled. "He said, 'You work on your sister's car and I'll pay you this.' So I worked on Kelley's car all week and then on Wednesday night I'd drive to Union County and work on my own."

Dale Jr. did that for a couple of years. He actually built one of Kelley's cars from the ground up.

"We took it to the track and somebody wrecked her and we both were about to beat the s--- out of this dude with jack handles and whatever," Dale Jr. said with a laugh. "She was tough. She was mentally tough. It was frustrating because you could see where she could have been a good race car driver and you just wanted to see her progress and get better.

"She would have been as far as females go ... she might have been one that fell through the cracks."

Kelley didn't think much about giving up driving at the time she did it. She had just graduated from UNC Charlotte and was working full-time for Action Performance. Having to leave the office for the track on Fridays at 2 p.m. was more of an inconvenience than anything.

So when her sponsorship ran out in 1996 she began focusing on the business world that she thrives in now.

"I didn't really think about what it could become and what I could become," Kelley said of driving. "So I wouldn't say it was hard to stop racing. I was excelling at what I was doing. I was being promoted. My dad was very proud of what I was doing."

That doesn't mean there isn't a part of Kelley that doesn't wonder what might have been. She admittedly will live vicariously through Patrick as the IndyCar Series star begins her journey into stock cars in the Nationwide Series.

"Would I love to be doing it? Absolutely," Kelley asked. "I love the challenge of being the best we can be and so I definitely would love to be in her shoes. I love the competitiveness, the adrenaline that rushes when you're in a race car."

But Kelley is comfortable in her position. She likes wearing 4-inch stilettos into the conference room and not having to take them off to climb into a car. She likes running the business side of JRM and hopes to one day take it to the Sprint Cup level.

One could argue she is one of the most powerful women in the sport.

"Like Dale said, he felt like he was born to drive," Kelley said. "I felt like this was what I was born to do."

Maybe. But according to the man in the hot tub, her dad thought she might have been the next great Earnhardt driver.

OK, now you can start with the one-liners.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.