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Remembering his dad in his own way
Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR Scene

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t expect media in Daytona to be focusing on the fact that his father died five years ago. But virtually every driver who was around when Earnhardt raced was asked about the seven-time champion’s legacy during Media Day on Feb. 9.

            “I hadn’t personally thought about it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Obviously, I heard it mentioned a few times over the last couple weeks. But I didn’t really … think that there would be a lot going on, a lot of tributes or anything happening. … There aren’t too many other things that you celebrate a fifth anniversary of. You know what I mean? I didn’t think it was that big a deal.”

            Earnhardt, though, was larger than life, and, if anything, his aura has only grown since Feb. 18, 2001, when he was killed in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Uncomfortable while repeatedly being asked about his father, Earnhardt Jr. said in 2004 that he hoped some of the questions would stop.

            As time has passed, he says the questions have largely subsided. He makes it clear he doesn’t mind talking about his father, though there are still occasional questions he could do without.

            “It’s OK to talk about him. I don’t mind talking about him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But there’s some questions that are hard to – not hard to answer, you [just] get tired of answering them. There’s no real answer for them. And you probably could write the story without me even giving you the answer because you probably know the answer.

            “I don’t mind talking about him. I was proud of him. You know, I just don’t know what it would be like if he was here as far as the company [Dale Earnhardt Inc.] goes or as far as the sport goes. It’s kind of hard for me to imagine, even with my imagination.”

            Other questions are easier. Asked how he’d like his father to be remembered, he had a ready reply.

            “I want his legacy to be … to be sort of a John Wayne-type or a Clint Eastwood-style legacy, that he did a good job,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When he worked, he did a good job. He’d give you everything he could give you. He’d try to do his best. He was respected, well-mannered, treated people the way he wanted to be treated.

            “You know, he’s very similar to Clint Eastwood in how Clint was a great actor, did a great job, was hard-nosed, started directing, has been amazing at that and continues to maintain his personality throughout the entire process.”

            The closest the elder Earnhardt came to directing was starting Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team for which his son still drives. One of the questions the son is often asked is how the team would be faring if the elder Earnhardt were alive and directing the team.

            Earnhardt Jr., though, isn’t sure that his father would be much of a hands-on owner.

            “I think he would have probably occupied his time with something else. He would have focused maybe a little bit more time towards the team than he had while he was driving,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But I think he probably would have took the focus that he used while he drove and did something else with that focus instead of [putting it] 100 percent towards the owner’s side of it.”

            The only thing he knows for sure is that the team would be different if his father were still alive. How so, he’s not sure. And he doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it, since he knows it’s simply not an option.

            Already in the limelight, his father’s death put even more fan and media focus on Earnhardt Jr. Asked if it would have been easier had he been able to spend the last five years in his father’s shadow, Earnhardt Jr. says he has no idea how different that would have been.

             “It was hard to be Dale Jr. when dad was around. Still [is] tough. [And it provided] a lot of advantages,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I had a lot of fun. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

            “I don’t really know how different that would have been. When he was around, man, you knew he was there. That was tough. But I miss him a lot. Obviously, he was – he could be a huge [asset] in a lot of things that happened to me personally over the last five years.”