May 21, 2008


ALL GROWN UP (Marty Smith, ESPN: The Magazine)

The paint bucket sat across the shop floor, and Dale Earnhardt ordered his kid to pick it up. It was bulky, the five-gallon kind, weighing every bit as much as the boy. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had no hope of picking it up, and he knew it, so the 8-year-old moped across the floor, questioning his old man's direction: How could Daddy ask this? Why does he gotta make me feel bad?

Daddy despised reluctance, especially from blood, and certainly from the boy who bore his name.

Dale Earnhardt—Ironhead, The Intimidator—had built a life, and ultimately a legend, on will. He was raised by a stock car pioneer, Ralph Earnhardt, at a time when even the best drivers raced to put food on the table. Ralph had worked his way through the textile mill and manhandled a hundred secondhand race cars around a hundred crappy little race tracks. So Dale's kids sure as hell weren't about to get off easy. When Dale Jr. did anything less than attack that bucket and grab it by the handle, his father found another way to motivate: He asked a shop hand to move it—right in front of his son.

"The lesson was to try it," Junior says. "Instead of being a quitter and not even attempting it, you should have tried. That was Daddy telling me that. If I can't pick it up, drag the son of a bitch across the floor. But I didn't even go over there to try, and he'd get so disappointed in me for being such a cop-out. Daddy would've been the kind of kid who walked over there and tried to pick it up, without a word. I should've been more like that. And I should be more like that today."

In telling the story, the 33-year-old Earnhardt sounds like a man who still sees himself as that reluctant kid. Thing is, he's not. On June 13, 2007, he announced the ballsiest career move in NASCAR history: Junior would depart the family team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., to join the Cup-winning juggernaut of Hendrick Motorsports. He was leaving for more than just faster, more reliable cars. For the first time since his father died, he'd be getting the guidance of an unquestioned patriarch, Rick Hendrick. And the kid who never felt worthy enough to stand alongside the great champions—his daddy, Richard Petty, the list goes on—now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the two greatest racers of the last decade, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. And he's in third place, running better than them and nearly everybody else in Sprint Cup. The move has been a true awakening.

"When given the opportunity to do things that are intimidating, that I may think are out of my reach—they aren't," Junior says. "If you met the person who's doing them, you'd find out that you're f—ing better than him."

Junior has never sounded more like his father. Buckets litter his path in every imaginable form: the name, the legacy, the sport's largest and most demanding fan base, the family soap opera played out in blogs and on message boards. It all seems too heavy for one man to carry, but he's grabbing handles like never before. "I think it's important that the fans know the initiative I've had over the past several years to become a grown-up," he says. "I am striving to be the total package: a mature, dedicated, motivated race car driver."

When the Father Judd was a young man he was going to a dance and didn't know how to tie a bow-tie. So he went to his grandfather's apartment and asked if he'd show how it was done. Grandfather told him to watch, tied it, and when Father thanked him his grandfather grabbed an end and untied it. "There, I showed you."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 21, 2008 8:58 AM
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