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"COME ON THE HELL IN," DALE JR. SAYS to me as he opens the door to his office at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) in Mooresville, N.C. "It's about time you got here."
It's three weeks before Junior will hop into a race car for his first full-time season in the Cup Series, and I've been given my first lengthy NASCAR assignment at SI: Follow Earnhardt Jr. for his entire rookie season and write a diary-style story. As he slides behind a desk, he looks even younger than 25. His hair is dyed blond, and he's wearing a grease-stained Budweiser cap that's turned backward. He knows his life is about to radically change, but he says, "I'll never change." And truth is, he doesn't.
Already Junior has a playboy image, which he recently embellished when he installed a small nightclub in the basement of his house, which sits across the highway from DEI. Lit in purple neon and featuring a long bar with a cooler large enough to hold 13 cases of beer, Club E is the thriving social center of Mooresville. Yes, for Earnhardt on this winter afternoon, life is good.
During the season he will miss more than one scheduled interview because of a late night in his basement, but that doesn't bother his primary sponsor, Budweiser. Before his Cup debut Bud had signed Junior to a five-year, $50 million sponsorship deal—thought to be the richest in the history of NASCAR.
Why is Junior able to attract this kind of money? It's more than the fact that he's won back-to-back championships in the Busch Series (now called the Nationwide Series) and that he's the namesake of a seven-time NASCAR champion. No, the real appeal of Earnhardt Jr. to NASCAR fans is that he's one of them: a blue-jeans-wearing, hell-raising good ol' boy who happened to inherit his famous father's gift of making a race car behave as if it's an extension of his body. "Would I be sitting here right now if my name wasn't Dale Earnhardt Jr.?" Junior asks himself on the day we first met. "No, I wouldn't. But you've either got to be comfortable with who you are or not be. And I am."
In his first race in 2000 Junior will finish 13th in the Daytona 500, eight spots ahead of his father, who owns Little E's number 8 Chevy. It is the first time in six Cup races together that he has bested his old man, who nonetheless isn't impressed. "Junior didn't work well with anybody," Earnhardt Sr. says after the race. "He wanted to pass. That's all he wanted to do, so that's why he finished where he did."
JUNIOR AND I ARE ROLLING DOWN Highway 136 outside of Mooresville in a 1971 cherry-red Corvette convertible—his favorite toy—and cruising through the Carolina countryside. As he mashes the accelerator and smiles as if he's just discovered the secret to happiness, he shares a confession. "The key to all the success I've had is my dad," he says. "It's that simple. He's taught me how to drive, how to live with integrity and how to be a man."