April 08, 2002 12:00 PM

>In the year since his father fatally crashed just seconds behind him at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has begun to feel the road again. “Every day that goes by, you feel a little more okay,” says Earnhardt, 27, whose memoir of his rookie year as a racer Driver Number 8 (co-written with Jade Gurss), has been steadily climbing the New York Times bestseller list. “It was scary last year at times, not having somebody to talk to like I had before. I’m getting a little more confident.”

Earnhardt says his father could be “very, very aggressive” behind the wheel. Since the senior Earnhardt’s death at 49, emerging from his shadow hasn’t been easy for his son. “As much as the NASCAR fans want to see similarities,” says Earnhardt, “I go out of my way to show them who I am and the difference between me and my dad.”

Ranked eighth at the start of his third year on the Winston Cup circuit, the major league of stock car racing, Earnhardt doesn’t mind what he calls “trading a little paint” but drives with a finesse distinct from the combative style of his father, nicknamed the Intimidator. “Where [my dad] was really headstrong…and would wheel the car as hard as it would go,” says Earnhardt, “I put more thought into every little thing. Maybe I’m a little more reserved.”

Earnhardt, who is single and lives in Mooresville, N.C., has his own nickname picked out. “We started a slogan that we used on T-shirts,” he says. ” ‘Here to dominate, not intimidate.’ So I always thought being the Dominator would be kind of cool.”

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