Earnhardt Jr. got out from dad’s shadow long ago

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He was so shy, so skinny, not yet somebody.

It was around 1997 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was testing at Talladega Superspeed­way, wearing an all-white firesuit. Bobby Labonte was the star at the Alabama test that day, and all the media crammed into Talladega’s wood-paneled press room to talk to Labonte.

I’m not sure anyone talked to the Earnhardt kid that day. Why would they? Nobody had any idea what he was about to become.

In that moment at Talladega, he was just the son of NASCAR’s greatest hero, a rich kid getting a chance to shake down a car because of his last name. Earnhardt hadn’t accomplished anything and NASCAR had no idea it had a future rock star in its midst.

Earnhardt, it turned out, was not just a kid getting a break because his father owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. The Hall of Famer was tough on his kid, made him work hard, kept him honest — two traits Junior has carried with him all the way until now, his final week as a full-time driver in NASCAR. Retirement awaits, and so does fatherhood.

Earnhardt started small, worked his way through the Xfinity Series and became a two-time champion. Then Earnhardt graduated to the Cup level in 2000 in a seat owned by his dad with splashy sponsor Budweiser and an expensive marketing campaign. Earnhardt Jr. dyed his hair blonde, threw raucous parties at the Club E he’d built on his property, and Bud got him into the hottest parties and sporting events all over the country.

Behind the wheel, he was a winner. The DEI cars were good back then, and Earnhardt made it to victory lane in just his seventh start. As his fan base began to grow, he became a cult hero to the NASCAR fan and recognizable to the casual sports observer.

When his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500 the next season, Earnhardt’s world changed in every way. Now the spotlight was on him all the time, and without his father around to cast a disapproving glare, Earnhardt struggled. He was still shy, still had some insecurities, and wasn’t comfortable being the guy forced to carry his father’s legacy.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley, were in a strained relationship with their father’s wife. They didn’t like the direction Teresa Earnhardt was taking DEI, and he wanted 51 percent control of the team in his contract negotiations. Teresa Earnhardt had also publicly questioned her stepson’s commitment, and Earnhardt painfully admitted in a preseason news conference that their relationship “ain’t a bed of roses.”

Four months later, he’d made his decision to leave DEI. Earnhardt took people who had covered the bulk of his career into his office and explained to them, personally, why he was leaving. He feared what people would think of him, and he’d been raised to be honest and behave professionally. Earnhardt didn’t want anyone to think he was abandoning his father’s team.

Off to Hendrick Motorsports he went, and that wasn’t what anyone hoped. Racing wasn’t fun, he was no longer getting along with the family members who had always been part of his career and his performance was awful.

It was Steve Letarte who took over as crew chief and rebuilt Earnhardt. He held him accountable with a strict schedule, demanded Earnhardt be present for debriefs and team meetings, and he coached him back into a winning race car driver.

Earnhardt will retire after Sunday’s season finale having never won a championship.

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