Earnhardt Jr. wiser, seeking respect

Chalk it up as one last youthful indiscretion for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Now he just has to hope it's not one of the most costly mistakes of his career.

For uttering one inappropriate word while celebrating his Talladega win on national television last weekend, he was docked 25 points and fined $10,000. It's a safe bet he won't be making that mistake again if he wins the Banquet 400 this Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

And this coming weekend is big for Junior on a number of levels. Back before NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup began, he pointed to the Kansas City race as one of the two -- along with the finale at Homestead -- that will make or break his championship hopes.

And it just so happens that the race falls on his 30th birthday. So, does that mean one of NASCAR's heralded "Young Guns" will wake up that morning and suddenly be all grown up? Or, as with millions before him, will he wake up dreading the milestone?

Well, unless something changes, Junior seems to be turning 30 in stride.

"It's really cool. I'm looking forward to it because I don't feel 30 and I don't act 30 so it don't bother me to turn 30," he said. "Obviously, the older you get the more credibility you attain from people and the more sensible your actions and thoughts and words are. With turning 30, I look forward to garnering more respect like I did this year and last year.

"I would really like the day to come when I can walk into the NASCAR hauler and say something or ask them to consider something and it truly gets considered. They listen to what you have to say, but there are guys in the sport now like Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace who are way up the ladder and that get the considerations and come in there with their opinions and those are the ones they listen to. I'm looking forward to being that guy one day and hopefully the older I get the better they'll listen."

That role was filled for years by Earnhardt's father. The unquestioned leader among drivers until his death, Earnhardt Sr. had the ear of Bill France Jr. unlike anyone else in the garage and NASCAR President Mike Helton was also among Earnhardt's best friends.

Only the elder Earnhardt could visit NASCAR's mobile office in the garage on race morning, only to stand on the top step signing autographs upon exiting. It was his subtle way of driving home the point of just how crowded the garage area had become and how he felt NASCAR officials should do something about it.

Many have told Junior that he already possesses plenty of power and that those running the sport will listen to him. If that's the case, it comes as a bit of a shock to the driver.

"I'm kind of like the guy who has some old valuable baseball card in his collection that he's looked at for years and doesn't know [it's valuable]," he says. "Everybody is always telling me about my position in the sport and how far I reach and my impact here and there. I can't grasp it. That's one thing I wish I knew everything about. I don't know what my influence is. I don't know if I walk into a room, who is listening and who isn't. I can't really tell. So it's hard to know what to take away from certain situations and interactions such as this [group interview] or [conversations] with Mike Helton or one with Tony [Eury] Jr. or Tony Sr.

"You try to know what they're thinking or what they thought or what their opinion is, but it's hard. I've got a great relationship with Mike [Helton] and [Nextel Cup Series Director John)] Darby and all those guys. Darby and I have been great friends ever since the Busch Series. But they have a full plate. So I don't really go in there barking my way at this and that and the other. I know that was pretty commonplace with my dad to be up in that trailer every weekend. All the drivers have admitted and said that that was something they really liked about dad was that he could go up in there and get something done for the drivers. If there was something they wanted done, he was the guy who could make it happen.

"I'd love to be that guy, who wouldn't? Hopefully I can just get smarter and every time I talk I'll know what I'm talking about and everybody will think it was awesome and they'll do it."

It can easily be argued that Dale Jr. doesn't give himself nearly enough credit when it comes to things of that nature. Articulate behind a microphone -- his exuberant victory-lane comment notwithstanding -- he's authored columns for NASCAR.com and NASCAR Scene, with his recent Scene column sharing his thoughts on things he'd change if he had Helton's job for a day.

Junior wrote about shortening race weekends to two days from three; of cutting many events to 300 miles; of allowing another tire company to enter the sport to provide Goodyear some competition; of cutting the field to 38 cars and several other issues. He started off the column by pointing out that he wrote it himself, and re-wrote it himself after his PR person suggested the initial draft might incur NASCAR's wrath.

"We wrote another one but we canned it because it was probably too aggressive. One of my PR guys, Mike (Davis), said that it had [a subjective penalty for] speeding down pit road written all over it," Junior says. "I thought it was funny. That was two seconds before I threw it away. But we wrote that one and that's my problem I guess. I get too emotional about it to where my point doesn't get heard. What gets heard is anger and my emotion so you don't get the point, you just know I was pissed.

"So we wrote another one with a little bit more optimistic sound and tone to it to where you read it and you took the point instead of how I was thinking or feeling about it. So I'm pretty happy with it and I'm glad everybody seemed to like it."

The subject of a recent feature on 60 Minutes, Junior is told that the show's director made a comment that Junior was quite well rounded and educated, something that may surprise those who shrug off drivers with stereotypes from the sport's formative years.
While it may go against his image as someone who's always out enjoying himself and his sponsor's product, Junior says he pays more attention to things than many likely believe.

"I read the paper a lot and watch a lot of news. What's going on every day interests me. I want to know the situation as far as what we're getting ourselves into every day," says a driver who supports President Bush, but took his team to a showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 earlier this year just to know the other side of the story. "When somebody asks me or I ask somebody about [current events] I can talk about it intelligently.

"I've always read the paper since I was about 15 or so. I started reading the sports and went on from there. I still like to go out on the town. Me and Elliott [Sadler] and Jamie McMurray -- I like to call him 'Mac-Murray' -- went downtown [recently]. I hadn't been [to] downtown Charlotte for two or three years if that tells you anything. They go more often than I do so I just hung out with them. Normally we just keep it close to home and go to a bar real close.

"I'm still single and don't have anything serious going on so I can kind of do my own thing and it's nice. But I like to know what's happening. My grades in school weren't that great. But I think if you can keep aware of what's going on, you're way better off than walking around without a clue."

Asked if as he gets older he believes his dad was even smarter than Junior first realized, he said he sees that on some levels.

"He wasn't a man of many words. There wasn't a lot of advice. You just had to watch and if you were smart enough to pay attention, you got it," Junior says. "If you didn't pay attention, he didn't tell you twice. I think I went on observation more than recalling certain things he might have told me."

And at one point along the way, the elder Earnhardt had to deal with turning 30, though it's hard to see that as something that he'd have given much thought. His son, though, thinks it's "just really cool.

"I was talking to Matt (Kenseth) and he was freaking out when he was turning 30," Junior said. "And I said, 'Man you're married and settled and I'm the one who should be freaking out.' It was just the opposite I guess. I have to change the bars and clubs I go to I guess, and try to hang out with the more adult crowd. I'm looking forward to it. My sister apparently has a surprise birthday planned for me. I'm looking forward to finding out where it's going to be and who is going to be there."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.