Driving own road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DOVER, Del. - In his red driver's suit and dark brown sunglasses, Dale Earnhardt Jr. may epitomize the cool look of a stock car driver. But when it comes to his desire for his first NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, there is nothing cool about him.

"To win the title will be difficult now or in five years," he said. "But I will absolutely win it, and when I do, it will be tough not to retire. In my heart, it will be the greatest achievement of my life. It will be really emotional and awkward and awesome all at the same time."

Earnhardt is the son of the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. It is a familiar story that he says everyone knows. A story he no longer finds painful, but, well, "monotonous." It is the same way he views the desire of those around NASCAR to see him further emulate his father by winning the championship.

"I really get disappointed with the pressure put on me to win a championship, to win this championship," he said. "I'm going to win a championship. Maybe this is my year, maybe not. We have to get to the end to see."

Earnhardt seemed to glow in the afternoon sunshine as he sat at a picnic table on an autumn day in the garage area at Dover International Speedway.

"I know I've got several more years left to win a championship," said Earnhardt, who trails Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch and is just 19 points off the Nextel Cup lead with eight races left in the season.

"But I've already reached my own personal goals in life. My goal was to make a career out of racing. I've seen relatives of famous drivers and sons of famous drivers [including his brother, Kerry] struggle.

"I'm glad I'm going to make a living this way and not have to be a mechanic in a service station or in a dealership. Just to be good enough to hold the job, that's all I've wanted."

He paused and then laughed, saying, "I set my goals pretty short."

The fans who had gathered on a hillside to watch Earnhardt speak to a reporter likely wouldn't have agreed. They sat or stood 10 feet away. Occasionally, a camera shutter clicked.

He had chosen to sit there for an interview last weekend, an unlikely spot for a driver - any driver - most of whom guard their privacy.

"It's a beautiful day," he said, looking at the blue sky, when asked why he had chosen this place. "And I thought all those people over there would have a chance to see this interview, something they normally don't get to see. It's something different for them."

Earnhardt will turn 30 Oct. 10, but people still refer to him as "The Kid." He's Dale Earnhardt's kid, all right. Being the talented son of a racing legend is how he got his start. But he is the one who has made the most of the first opportunity his dad gave him and built it into something more.

Ask Terry Labonte to reflect on the son of his old friend and he squints, as if bringing the younger Earnhardt into focus.

"Who in this sport is under more pressure?" Labonte asked. "I can't imagine anyone. The sponsor he has. His dad. The image. The fans he inherited who expect so much from him.

"I think some people look at him and think he's awful lucky, but if you really think about it, he was thrown into a real pressure cooker. And that kid has handled it; handled it all unbelievably and he's still down-to-earth. There is no doubt his dad would be awful proud."

Leery of fame

Earnhardt has been strong while facing the most heartbreaking disaster, the death of his father at Daytona; composed and gracious while dealing with the crush of demands that followed. He is also insightful about himself and less than sure of being a celebrity beyond the sport.

"I think every person who reaches a level of fame has doubts and curiosities about it," he said. "You get put in awkward and uncomfortable situations quite often. One of my problems, it kind of goes back to realizing your place in the sport.

"I don't see myself at the same level of fame as [the people around] me do. They're always saying I've got what it takes. Every time I have to go to New York or Los Angeles for a TV show appearance I say, 'Aw, man, I don't want to do that. Those people don't know who I am.' And they say, 'Aw, yeah they do, come on. You reach that far.'

"But I don't know. I go home and sit in my house and say, 'This is me, right here.' "

One of those uncomfortable experiences will be on display tonight when Earnhardt is interviewed on 60 Minutes (8 p.m., Channel 13).

Earnhardt is the first NASCAR driver to be featured on the news magazine show in nearly 20 years and was interviewed by correspondent Mike Wallace. Wallace, 86, survived a few brisk laps around Daytona International Speedway in a Corvette C6 with Earnhardt at the wheel before visiting him at his home in Mooresville, N.C.

"I was really nervous," Earnhardt said about the interview. "I'm still nervous, because I don't know how I'm going to be portrayed. They asked a lot of political questions - about the presidential race and the Middle East. It was difficult to answer some of their questions, knowing the country is so large and so many people will be watching.

"I wasn't pushing a point of view. I just told how I thought it was. I liked that it was challenging, but I know I opened a lot of doors for people to disagree. I know the racing papers will be filled with letters from people disagreeing. But I was proud to be on the show and I've already used up about 40 percent of my life, so there is no use getting worried and upset about stuff. Life's too short."

Earnhardt also told Wallace he believes his late father had a lot to do with his surviving a fiery crash during practice for a sports car race last summer in which he received serious burns.

"I don't want to put some weird, you know, psycho twist on it like he was pulling me out or anything," Earnhardt told Wallace, according to a CBS transcript, but he had the feeling someone gripped him under his arms and pulled him from the car.

"I had my PR man ... by the collar screaming at him to find the guy that pulled me out of the car. He was like, 'Nobody helped you get out.' "

Taking time off

Last weekend, Earnhardt was looking beyond the incident. He said good things came from it, among them a closer relationship with his mother, Brenda Jackson, his father's second wife, as she took care of him for two months while he recovered. And he also determined that when he has a weekend off from Nextel Cup racing in the future, he will take it.

"Next season," he said, "I'm going to the Bahamas or somewhere."

He is aware that people hang on his every word, that he makes millions of dollars driving his No. 8 Chevrolet and that everyone from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Madison Avenue advertising agencies have expectations that require his time and presence.

But there must be a down time, when he simply gets to enjoy all the fame and fortune.

"You mean beyond racing at the track?" Earnhardt asked. "The most fun I've had is probably meeting Arturo Gatti, a boxer I follow. I got to walk out to the ring with him for a championship fight. Step into the ring. I was amazed to be there and know he was about to fight. I watched the match from a seat in the front row. That was probably the most fun thing I've done in the last three years.

"I like boxing. I box. I have a 16-by-16 foot ring in my house and me and my buddies get in there and fight."

He stopped when he saw the disbelieving look. And then he paraphrased the old Hemingway quote about there being only three sports - auto racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing - to his liking, "You know, the only three real sports are auto racing, boxing and bull fighting," he said. "I have buddies who ride bulls, and I'm going to do that one day, too.

'Such a good guy'

"But the boxing, we're not crazy. We try to do it technically. We watch films of boxing matches, spar and try to teach each other how to do it right. It's my best hobby, that and RC [remote control] cars."

But he also has a go-kart track at home, and fellow drivers Brian Vickers and Jamie McMurray are among those who come to play with him.

"He's such a good guy," said McMurray. "I never hung out with him until this year, but he is definitely fun to hang around. I call him Elvis because everyone knows him.

"But it is weird, sometimes, seeing him on television and hearing the things he says. I mean, he's a very shy guy. Not outspoken, but very quiet and reserved. I'm the opposite. I'm outgoing and personable, but I won't say what I think. But Junior, whenever an opinion is asked for, he expresses it."

So now Earnhardt was sitting at this picnic table, looking at the fans on the hill. A smile crossed his angular face, disrupting the reddish, blond stubble of his beard.

"You know, after Dad died, I got a lot of sympathy from fans," he said. "Not only his fans, but all fans. I understood all that and I knew that it would end one day. All the fans have been cheering for me. And now I win three or four races a year.

"While my performance isn't as electrifying as some of Dad's, I'm a consistent contender. I've given his fans something to be proud of and they tell me. They say, 'We're proud of you.' They thank me for keeping the name going. They say, 'Your daddy would be proud.'

"But I think I'm getting closer to the love-hate thing. I think they're starting to see me as me. One day, I'm going to hear boos. And one day someone who is the fan of someone else is going to come up to me and say, 'You [stink].' "

And Earnhardt, who made a lot of people happy on this afternoon just by sitting at a picnic table, smiled in what might have been viewed as anticipation.

ON TONIGHT'S '60 MINUTES' INTERVIEW

"I wasn't pushing a point of view. I just told how I thought it was. I liked that it was challenging, but I know I opened a lot of doors for people to disagree."

ON HIS CAREER

"My goal was to make a career out of racing. ... Just to be good enough to hold the job, that's all I've wanted."

ON HIS FAME

"Every time I [make] a TV show appearance, I say, 'Aw, man, I don't want to do that. Those people don't know who I am.' "

ON WINNING THE SERIES TITLE

"I really get disappointed with the pressure put on me to win a championship, to win this championship. I'm going to win a championship. Maybe this is my year, maybe not."

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