DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Theres a restaurant outside North Carolina Speedway where all the racers used to go for steak and socializing whenever NASCAR was in town.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew the routine, had lived it with his famous father. But he was a reluctant participant when he began his racing career, once recruiting his publicist to skip the steak in favor of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their motel room.
Earnhardt didnt think it would be a problem until his father came through the door of their adjoining room, saw the half-eaten loaf of bread and his son watching Batman reruns. The Intimidator lit into him.
As he was opening the door, he was hollering, Yall got 15 minutes to get ready to go and eat, and once he opened the door to see what we were doing, he was really upset because we werent more professional., Earnhardt Jr. said, remembering his dads words. He thought we should do what other drivers do, and what he was doing is the best thing to do. So he thought we were kind of lazy.
Tons of moments like that ... where we would be lazy, do something goofy, and Dad would just get so mad for us not taking things more seriously.
Those are the memories of Dale Earnhardt his son has chosen to share in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of his fathers death on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Hes chosen to keep to himself the personal thoughts, feelings and heartache that accompany that violent afternoon, and the decade of difficulties it created for NASCARs most popular driver.
Try as he might, he cant replicate the success of his father. Hes stuck in the shadow. He goes by Dale, and thats what his circle calls him, but hes just Junior to most people.He cant please a rabid fan base, much of it inherited, that demands a championship.
Worst of all, he cant shake the pressure that comes from being the namesake of an icon who was polarizing in life but has become mythical in death.
It clearly weighed on him in his preseason appearances, each one a peppering of questions about his father. With a blank stare and monotone answers, he patiently sat through every session, trying to be respectful but making it so very clear he cant wait for the anniversary to pass. He seemed tired almost absent but insisted hes happy inside.
But he also acknowledged that appearances no longer paint a picture of the carefree, beer-drinking rock star who was such a stark contrast to his blue-collar father.
Ill see these videos of me from five years ago, definitely a more jubilant, cheerier guy, Earnhardt said. I think Ive become more reserved, maybe due to how Ive seen me be judged or analyzed. Ive sort of changed my outward approach a little bit toward everybody.
But Im telling you, if I can get back to the racetrack, and I can win a race and run well, itll get a whole lot easier.
And thats the true burden the losing, the failure that hes faced the last five years.
He has won just three races since 2005, and none the last two years. Hes been to Victory Lane only once since his ballyhooed 2008 move to Hendrick Motorsports, a marriage that paired the most marketable driver in NASCAR with the winningest team.
Only Earnhardt has yet to challenge for a title, has missed the 12-driver Chase for the Championship the last two years and takes a 93-race losing streak into todays Daytona 500.
Before an accident in Wednesdays practice wrecked his pole-winning car, he was slated to start first, which raised hope the prodigal son could end his miserable slump in the biggest race of the NASCAR season.
All talk of a fix was dismissed after Earnhardts accident, which forcedhim now to start at the back of the 43-car field today.
But the truth behind his strong qualifying effort goes back to Rick Hendrick, who once again has shaken up his organization to benefit Earnhardt.
Just days after Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship, the team owner overhauled his driver-crew chief lineup to pair Earnhardt with Steve Letarte, who had spent the last several seasons with Jeff Gordon.
Its Earnhardts third crew chief in three years, and Hendrick said the pressure never ceases in trying to get his driver back to Victory Lane.
Everybody expects me or Dale to wave some magic wand, and hes going to lead every lap and win every race, Hendrick said. Hes just under the microscope every minute.
Im there for him, and I cant tell you how I would handle what hes trying to handle, and that is carry on his fathers name, have a business that he takes care of, make everybody happy, and the sport needs him to do well. Hes getting it from everywhere. He has no safe zone.
The safe zone could be the cockpit of his No. 88 Chevrolet, the only place Earnhardt seemingly can find relief.