Translation: Junior isn't as focused on wining races as he should be. This has been the biggest criticism of him for the last three years. Is it warranted? Perhaps. After all, even Junior admits that he's not willing to let racing consume him the way it does Johnson, the way it does Jeff Gordon—the way it did his father. Is this what separates the good from the great in NASCAR? Probably.
We are back at Daytona—the site of so many of our discussions—and Dale and I are sitting in a golf cart in the infield. We talk about how much his life has changed in recent years. He's got a serious girlfriend now (but no plans to marry), he has some 150 employees at JR Motorsports, he owns a bar in uptown Charlotte called Whiskey River (and will open another in Jacksonville shortly), and he has multiple real estate holdings. Yes, the business of being Dale Earnhardt Jr.—who made an estimated $26,097,190 in salary, winnings and endorsements in 2009—is good.
"This was the best off-season of my life because it was the first time I can remember that I got away from the sport," Junior tells me. "I just stayed at home and remembered that I've won races, a lot of big trophies, and that I know how to drive these cars. My confidence came back, and I'm ready now."
A few hours later Junior is behind the wheel of his number 88 Chevy. Daytona has always brought out the best in him, and today is no exception. With two laps left Earnhardt is in 10th place. But then, displaying the moxie and skill that have enabled him to win 18 career Cup races, he drives up through the field by banging cars out of the way, slicing through holes that didn't appear to be there and expertly riding the draft. He passes eight cars over the final five miles. It is an arresting two laps of racing, laps that recall the glory days of his father at Daytona, and he finishes second. "Damn, I haven't had that much fun in a long f------ time," he says as he walks away from his car afterward. "This is just what we needed."
Daytona, however, would be the highlight of Earnhardt's 2010 season. For the second straight year he would miss the Chase. His three years at Hendrick have been, without question, a major disappointment. He's gone through two crew chiefs but has never been able to flourish at Hendrick—the most engineering-heavy team in NASCAR—the way he did in his younger years at DEI, where he was surrounded by family members who understood him in a way outsiders could not.
SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE DALE JR.? My journey with him has gone on for more than a decade, and there are three write-them-in-stone truths I've learned about the man over that time: 1) No matter what he does—win or wreck, run in the front or in the back—he will continue to be loved by the NASCAR masses; 2) nothing will stop him from having a hell of a good time when he's away from the track; and 3) his father will continue to shadow him, ghostlike, for the rest of his life. Junior understands this, and he doesn't run from it. In fact, he embraces it, which explains why Dale Sr.'s name has come up in nearly every chat we've ever had.
As for his future, "I'm not sure," Earnhardt tells me during the 2010 season. "I still love racing, still love the challenge. I really want to win a championship one day, but if that never happens, I'll still be happy. You know, I never thought I'd accomplish everything that I have in racing. I may have this name, but I never thought of myself being like my father. He was just so big, man, larger than life. It's a damn tough act to follow, if you know what I mean."