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Flat Spot On: Earnhardt Jr. On The Road To Title?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 22 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears to be blooming into what people have expected/demanded. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

I suppose I’m one of the few journalists who covered both the fatal crash of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in Daytona in 2001 and the crash three years later of Dale Earhardt Jr. that brought him as close to a fatal accident as he’s ever been. The incident occurred at the Infineon Raceway, scene of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race.

During an early morning warm-up for an American Le Mans Series race in 2004, Earnhardt Jr., essentially a guest driver for Corvette Racing, spun on cold tires on a track made damp by morning fog. When the car backed into the wall, the fuel filler pipe broke, throwing gasoline under the car and close to the exhaust headers of his Corvette C5-R. In an instant, the entire car – much of it built from composite material – burst into flames.

The weird part was Earnhardt Jr.’s recollection of someone helping him out of the car. The ubiquitous YouTube video confirms Earnhardt Jr. was alone in the flames in the cockpit when he pulled himself out. “When I unbuckled the seat belt,” he would say later, “and I reached up into the rollbar to pull myself out, somebody grabbed me underneath the arms, I thought, and pulled me out of the car.”

Whether any supernatural intervention took place can be heavily discounted. But the obvious connection to the possibility that the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. helped pull his son out of the burning Corvette is the

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a championship-caliber season to this point. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

inevitable leap of imagination.

In the broader sense, no matter what happens in Earnhardt Jr.’s racing career, the ghost of his father is never far away – in the popular imagination or in his own personal universe. In that sense, one can’t help but admire Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to establish one of racing’s most compelling personalities. He’s alternately introspective, funny and outgoing, throughtful and off-the-cuff sarcastic. Like the son of “The King,” Kyle Petty, Earnhardt Jr. has established his own personna, one that is quite different from the famous father.

Earnhardt Sr. was a hard ass at home when it came to his responsibilities as a father just as he was the Intimidator on the track. He was set in his ways as a team owner, too, when Earnhardt Jr. drove for him. But to hear it from family friends like David Oliver, who grew up near the Earnhardt household at the corner of Coach and Sedan in Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t shy about asserting his own independence.

The Intimidator, to take one example, wouldn’t let his son even keep a full face helmet on the hauler of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team, insisting Dale Jr. use an open-face helmet like him. But when the father and son were hired by Corvette Racing to compete in the Daytona 24-hour in 2001, there was Dale Jr. wearing a full-face helmet.

As he rolls into Sonoma County to challenge yet again the road course where he’s never particularly excelled, Earnhardt Jr. is once again drafting in the wake of that familiar night rider in the sky. He’s won his first race in four years by spanking the field at Michigan and holds second place in the Sprint Cup points while driving for the Hendrick Motorsports team responsible for providing the equipment for the last six championships. Inevitably, the creeping thought of the son finally matching the father’s championship ability comes alive.

There were times I thought Earnhardt Jr. was so caught up in grief and the maelstrom of being the son of the famous and accomplished father that I felt sorry for him. I suppose I should have just felt sorry for everyone, including myself, who had to learn to live without the incomparable Ironhead. (Given that it took me 16 years to establish a rapport with him, Ironhead always seems to me like the nickname that fit Earnhardt Sr. best.)

There will never be anything past tense about Earnhardt Sr. in the larger sense. Or at least that’s true for the generation who knew him in the NASCAR garage and elsewhere. But the maw and march of time will gradually make him a historical figure. Hence the indulgence of seeing the father in the son for those who want to postpone the inevitable.

I admire the class which Earnhardt Jr. has handled this situation. Fiercely loyal like his father, Earnhardt Jr.’s career suffered most from his commitment to cousin and longtime Sprint Cup crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who came with him to Hendrick Motorsports after the break-up with stepmother and team owner Teresa Earnhardt. Now that he’s been under the tutelage of Steve Letarte, who understands how to get drivers to interface with engineers, Earnhardt Jr. may well be the equal of any of his peers.

Having worked long and hard under a media microscope in pursuit of his return to victory lane, Earnhardt Jr. has subsequently acted like he’s been there before. That says a lot of about who he is and perhaps is the best indicator of his confidence when it comes to the Chase for the Championship.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 22 2012
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