The time had come for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to start his engine—or more precisely his H little gas-powered, radio-controlled race car. On Feb. 24, six days after the death of his father, Dale Sr., in the final lap of the Daytona 500 and the evening before Dale Jr. would race in the Dura-Lube 400 in Rockingham, N.C., the boyish 26-year-old joined a few pals outside his motor coach and laughingly ran his toy car all over a Rockingham parking lot. “Dale Jr. is different in personality than Senior,” says a friend, referring to the imposing older Earnhardt. “But fans see something in him they can identify with.”
Never more so than in the days after Daytona, when Dale Jr. exhibited a grace beyond his years. “I miss my father, and I’ve cried for him,” he told reporters two days after the funeral in Kannapolis, N.C. “I just try to…remember that he’s in a better place.” The following Sunday Dale Jr. climbed into his red No. 8 Chevy Monte Carlo and carried on the family tradition at the North Carolina Speedway. Incredibly, on the very first lap he was bumped from behind and spun head-on into a concrete wall, an accident frighteningly reminiscent of the crash that killed his father. The son, however, walked away with only bruises and vowed to race again. “The past week we’ve seen a much more mature Dale Jr.,” says a member of his racing team. “Being that Junior’s so strong helps a lot of us.”
Partial to baggy pants, backwards caps and rap, he is—save for racing—no chip off the crusty old block. “He just enjoys hanging out and playing video games,” says his pal Josh Snider, 22, one of a small pack of friends who get together in Dale Jr.’s three-bedroom house in Mooresville, N.C. Born to Dale Sr. and his second wife, Brenda, who divorced when their son was 3, Dale Jr. and his father grew closer than ever in recent years, thanks to racing. After Dale Jr. won his first Winston Cup event in April 2000, the Intimidator, as his hard-driving father was known, ran from his own car, crushed his son in a bear hug and said through tears, “I love you.”
So it was that Dale Jr. returned to the track so soon after the man he called Daddy had died. “He’s still a kid,” says NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, 29. “It’s got to be devastating to go through something so unexpected and so huge. Probably the best thing for him is to get in that race car so he can just drive.” After a memorial that saw fans in the stands and pit crews join hands in prayer, Dale Jr. did just that, albeit briefly. (Steve Park, also driving a car owned by Earnhardt Sr.’s company, won the rain-delayed race the next day.)
On his own now, Dale Jr. seems ready for the challenge. Never again, though he might wish he could, will he make the mistake he made at last year’s all-star Winston race near Charlotte, where he heard the crowd cheering wildly and turned to look for his father. Only then did he realize that the cheering was for him.
Don Sider and Michaele Ballard in Rockingham and Nancy Wilstach in Kannapolis and Mooresville