published Friday, May 30th, 2014

Wiedmer: Mr. Good Guy Junior more than chip off old block

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    NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions from the audience at the 2014 Best of Preps Banquet on Thursday at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Earnhardt was the guest speaker at the annual event which honors the area's best prep athletes.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

You might reasonably think it's been fairly easy being Dale Earnhardt's kid. Well, except for watching his dad killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. And the divorce that his parents went through. And all those outrageous expectations from the Intimidator's fans for the kid to follow in Pop's footsteps.

But other than that, it's all pretty much been a Sunday drive in fifth gear. Right?

"I didn't think racing was going to work out," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said during his appearance at our newspaper's Best of Preps banquet Thursday night at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "There are only 43 guys who get to start on Sunday. I was 19. I became a mechanic at an automobile dealership. You know, the GM Mr. Goodwrench guy. Change your oil in 29 minutes or less.

"After I proved I could do that, I started pulling transmissions on cars. I did that for four years."

Sixteen years have passed since then. He's become, year after year, the most popular driver in NASCAR, much as his father probably was for different reasons. Junior just won his second Daytona 500 in February, and the No. 88 car he's now driving for Hendrick Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series just might be his best ride ever.

As Earnhardt noted, "This is as much fun as I've ever had, as good as we've ever run."

We've had immensely popular and successful professional athletes grace the Best of Preps stage before. The Williams sisters from professional tennis. The human Olympic gold medal Michael Phelps. NFL quarterbacks Eli Manning and Drew Brees. Chipper Jones.

But if you want to better understand why NASCAR so resonates with working class America, everything about the way Dale Jr. has lived his life as the offspring of racing royalty is the place to start.

Despite all of his father's fame and fortune, he was the kid on the end of the Mooresville (N.C.) High School bench when the soccer team reached the state tournament final his freshman year.

"I wasn't very big. I'm not sure I even got in for as much as a minute in the state title game, and we ended up losing," he said. "But just to be a part of it, to play someone we'd never played before, to get to spend the night in a hotel with your teammates, that will always be special to me."

The Washington Redskins are special to him, so much so that he occasionally asks for their scores during a Sunday race. And as he told the Best of Preps crowd, one of the guys on his crew has been known to tell him the 'Skins are winning when they're actually getting creamed, just to keep his mind on the race.

"I'm like any fan of a team they really care about," Earnhardt said earlier in the evening. "If they lose, it's hard on you. If you win, it makes everything better. My fans tell me if I lose, it ruins their week. But if the Redskins lose, it ruins my week."

But however much that sounds like the rest of us, it's far from all that makes him special. He likes to bow hunt, which is hardly a fast-paced sport. And he loves to follow celebrity chef Myron Mixon's barbecue methods.

"Brisket and ribs," Earnhardt said. "Slow cook. Eight to 12 hours. I'm really into it."

And because we all change, his driving techniques away from Sunday have gotten a lot slower also.

"For a while there I was spending every dime I made paying for tickets and paying for lawyers," he said with a smile. "I learned it's OK to get there late sometimes."

Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High graduate Mike Davis has been a public relations consultant for Earnhardt for years. He's watched the 39-year-old driver come to embrace Twitter after this year's Daytona win. He's seen him become one of the top five requests for "Make-A-Wish" kids, which Earnhardt has enthusiastically embraced.

"But what he really enjoys is helping people when nobody knows about it," Davis said. "And most of the time the public doesn't."

His father was the roughest, toughest hombre of NASCAR's past 40 years. The Intimidator. What a nickname.

A single shared story of that fire and fury: Dale Jr. was thrown onto a NASCAR stop in Japan with his dad. He was thrilled to get to be on the track with the old man and other NASCAR legends.

And as the race wound down, their pits next to each other, Junior's crew borrowed some tires from Pop's crew to finish the race. Junior even passed Dale Sr. in the final laps by forcing him high on the track.

Later, as both men sat in a shared trailer, undressing and preparing to shower, Junior felt a shoe fly by his head.

"It hit the wall behind me at a high rate of speed," he said. "My dad wasn't happy with me."

He has been somewhat stunned to see how unhappy his fans can be with him on Twitter when he loses.

"They want to make sure we can fix everything before the next race," he said. "You have to assure them it will be OK."

Twitter also has allowed his longtime girlfriend to occasionally call him "Ralph," which is his real first name.

"I think she says it about him more than to his face," Davis noted. "As in, 'I don't think Ralph is happy about that.' Besides, half the males in North Carolina are named Dale. It makes it more clear who you're talking about."

They've been talking about Dale or Dale Jr. in NASCAR for 40 years -- the Earnhardts, Pettys and Allisons the trinity of stock-car racing.

And it's next to impossible to bring up the Earnhardts without mentioning Daytona, which caused someone to ask Junior on his way from the airport to the Convention Center his opinion of the Florida track, given the highs and lows it has dealt his life.

"That was the way he had to go," he said of his father. "People ask me if I'm haunted by it, but I'm not. It's like visiting him in a cemetery in a way. That's where my father passed. And when I won there in the July race later that year, it was probably my favorite moment in racing. It was great for my father's fans, great for me and as a relative told me later, 'It brought closure.'"

So where would he rank his father today among NASCAR drivers?

"I think he was the best ever," Junior said.

And he might be. But years from now, when they look back on Junior's accomplishments both on and off the track, he just might go down as one of NASCAR's best people ever, Mr. Goodwrench having become Mr. Goodworks.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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