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JUNIOR IS CHARGING TOWARD HIS first Cup championship, and on this October day in central Alabama he wins a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. It's his series-best fifth victory of the season (he'll finish with six), and he takes the points lead in the Chase with only seven races left. Why is he so good this year? It starts with the communication with his crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., who is his uncle, and his car chief, Tony Jr., who is his cousin. Earnhardt isn't expansive over the radio during races when he's trying to explain what he's feeling in the car—"It's tight" or "It's loose" are about as descriptive as he gets—but the Eurys, who've been around Dale since childhood, can divine from the tone of Earnhardt's voice precisely what changes need to be made during pit stops to give the number 8 Chevy increased speed. Nearly every driver in the garage agrees that Earnhardt is the driver to beat for the Cup.
But then, suddenly, everything changes. In Victory Lane at Talladega, while on live national TV, Junior lets an expletive fly from his lips when he says the victory doesn't "mean s---?." He's docked 25 points by NASCAR, loses his lead in the standings and is never again a factor in the championship battle.
Know this about Earnhardt Jr.: He cusses about as frequently as a math teacher mentions numbers. But this turns out to be a key moment for Earnhardt; he doesn't seem the same for the rest of 2004. He won't tell you this, but close observers and many of his friends will begin to note that he appears to lose confidence, and the statistics bear this out. Before the slip of the tongue at Talladega, he had 14 wins in five years of racing. Over the next five years he will have only four.
JUNIOR AND I ARE SITTING OUTSIDE his motor home at Phoenix International Raceway. For more than an hour we talk about his life and times, and he's as open as any athlete I've met, which is typical Junior. His honesty, in fact, can at times be startling. This stands in stark contrast to his father, who was usually tight-lipped—to the media, to his friends, even to his youngest son.
SI: Do you hang out with guys you grew up with?
DE: Most of my friends are younger than me by about four or five years. [Growing up] I never really had a group of friends that I hung out with. I had three or four buddies that I saw every day in high school, and we hung out a little bit afterward, but for the most part I went home. You see, I was kind of sheltered. I couldn't go out with my buddies to the mall. I couldn't skip school. My dad wouldn't put up with that crap. So I graduated from college [a degree in automotives from Mitchell Community College, in Statesville, N.C.] and got a job [as a mechanic at his father's Chevrolet dealership] and met a couple friends, and we've been buddies ever since.
SI: What's the worst part of your life?
DE: My social life is really sporadic. My friends think that I disappear for months at a time. They just think I'm punking out on my couch at home. But I'm really busy.