He’d pictured this victory oh so many times, but when Dale Earnhardt Jr. roared across the finish line at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15, the moment took him by surprise. “I dreamed of going to pull down Turn 4—all this great, theatrical, made-for-TV stuff,” Earnhardt says, referring to the high banked curve where his father, NASCAR legend Dale Sr., 49, suffered his fatal crash during the race’s final lap three years ago. “But when it came right down to it, all I could think about was, I can’t believe I won!’ ” As his stepmother Teresa headed for Victory Lane to congratulate him, and members of his team, some crying, hoisted the 29-year-old on their shoulders, “the fans were going crazy. It was awesome,” he says. “I wanted to just let it sink in, to have a minute for me.”
With his emotional triumph at the 500, followed the next day by a win in the Hershey’s Kisses 300, “Little E” got off to his fastest start in five seasons—and put NASCAR Nation on notice that he isn’t just some kid following in his father’s tire tracks. “The biggest compliment you can give me is that I remind you of my dad,” says Earnhardt of his father, whose rise from humble roots helped make him a NASCAR hero. “But when is the day going to come when I don’t have to reflect back? When will I stand on my own merit?”
Fans can be excused for flashing back to the hard-charging Dale Sr., who was known as the Intimidator. At times Junior shares his father’s famously aggressive style. “He dives in there,” says NASCAR veteran Buddy Baker, now a race car driving instructor, of Dale Jr. “It may cost him a fender every now and then, but he’s going anyway.” Unlike his father, however, whose bumping tactics rattled many fellow drivers, Dale Jr. seems to have the patience to wait to make his move. “Junior won’t do anything stupid to jeopardize anything,” says Tony Stewart, 32, Earnhardt’s rival and good buddy, who was leading Daytona till Earnhardt shot past him on lap 181. “When you run with each other as much as we do, we kind of got a respect and a trust with each other.”
Both on and off the track, Dale Jr. “doesn’t come off as, ‘I’m the greatest guy that’s ever been,'” says Baker. “He still has a certain amount of shyness about him, which is refreshing.” Although that reserve seems to add to the bachelor’s charm, inspiring many women to make the first move, he says he isn’t dating anyone special right now. “Yeah, I’m still single,” he laments. “To be honest, I’m fired up about being married and having kids. I want to have a son and enjoy what he does, whether it’s racing or not. I just haven’t found that girl yet.”
Occasionally Junior and Stewart go to concerts by mutual bud Kid Rock. “We’re both fierce competitors, but we like to have fun,” Stewart says. During Earnhardt’s limited free time at home in Mooresville, N.C., he enjoys boating and tubing on nearby Lake Norman. He recently moved into a secluded, more traditional house than the one featured a few years ago on MTV Cribs, which had a nightclub in the basement. Conditioning has become a greater part of his life; he spars in the regulation-size boxing ring he had installed in his garage. His latest passion: using computer software to print photos on T-shirts, like the Farrah Fawcett (ca. Charlie’s Angels) creation he is wearing at the moment. Says his sister Kelley, 31, business manager for his management company, Junior Motor Sports: “He likes anything old style.” In fact, he’s given up the trademark baseball cap worn backward, goatee and baggy pants of a couple of years ago.
Though Earnhardt seems uncomfortable dwelling on any newfound maturity, he admits “there’s a lot of difference between being 24 and being 29.” Take the night he won the Daytona 500 but says he had to forgo the traditional celebration because he was too tired and had the rain-delayed Hershey race the next morning. “I wanted to go to the strip and go wild, but instead I just had a couple of beers and a steak,” Earnhardt confesses. “I guess I’m just growing up, like everybody else my age.”
Pam Lambert. Michaele Ballard in Mooresville