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SI: Do you have a favorite childhood memory?
DE: Going to races when I was 12. Everything in life was all about getting to the racetrack. My daddy left early in the morning to get to the race shop, and I couldn't wait for summer vacation so I could go with him. But you didn't go unless you were asked. So the night before, you'd hang out with him while he watched television, just hoping he might say something. Everything was about getting next to a race car. Because when you're little, standing next to race cars is really kick-ass. As ridiculous as that sounds, it's true.
SI: How do you want to be remembered?
DE: Honest. "If he said he did something, he did it."
IT'S AN EARLY AFTERNOON IN MOORESVILLE, but it's already been a long day for Junior. Earlier in the morning he met with the 400 employees at DEI and, with tears running down his face, told them that he was leaving the organization—the house his father started building in 1980, the only team for which he'd ever raced.
A few hours later he faced the media during a 50-minute press conference, fielding questions about why he was leaving, where he was going and what his daddy would think now. Junior did a pro's job of concealing his emotions while the lights and cameras were trained on him. He was so smooth that he didn't even take a sip of water from the glass that was set in front of him. He was in press conference mode, and while he answered the questions sincerely, he was careful not to go too deep.
The clock has just ticked to 12:45 when I walk into Earnhardt's second-floor office at JR Motorsports, the facility that houses the Nationwide team he launched in 2006. Junior isn't doing any sit-down, one-on-one chats on this day with any print media other than SI, and right away I can tell he is emotionally drained. He slowly lowers himself into a chair in the corner of the spacious office and says in a voice choked with emotion, "I am scared s---less.
"I was laying in bed last night worrying about what everyone was going to think today," Earnhardt says. "I didn't want my words to sound rehearsed."
I eventually ask him why, really, he's leaving DEI.