CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — 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. He never filled his father's shoes on the race track. But he won two Daytona 500s and built an army of loyal fans.
He also settled into his own skin, found his voice on social media and became the social conscience of NASCAR simply by stating his beliefs and being honest, as his father had taught him to be.
He took NASCAR to events and appearances the sport had never accessed before, and he settled into a life with wife Amy, who brought him out his shell. She was by his side during a grueling recovery last season from concussions, and the couple will become first-time parents next year.
Earnhardt is nothing at all like the kid trying to wedge his way into NASCAR two decades ago. But in many ways, the money and the fame and lifetime of experiences hasn't changed him at all.
All the adulation and the accomplishments are because of who Earnhardt is, not because of his lineage.
"I read something on Twitter the other day about my brother, he said he has always lived under Dad's shadow and that is not such a bad thing," Earnhardt said. "I don't know that you are always out from under it, but it didn't bother me, but I was always compared to him and compared to his success, the person he was, people either liked I was different or didn't like that I was different and wanted me to be just like him or whatever.
"It was often in conversation or part of the topic of conversation in articles and so forth. I really don't know when that started to happen."
And now, with one week left in his retirement tour, the emotions and the reality are very real for Earnhardt. Although he has three cars running for the Xfinity Series championship on Saturday, a future career in broadcasting with NBC, a baby girl on the way, there's something missing this week.
"I just miss him so bad and wish he were here today to see all this happening," Earnhardt said of his father.
Jenna Fryer began covering NASCAR in 1997 at Talladega Superspeedway, before Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his Cup debut. She can be followed via https://twitter.com/jennafryer
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