HE'S NOT his daddy, not by a long shot. He's shy, loves to lose himself in his iPad and still doesn't understand why he's so popular. He doesn't hunt at dawn and work his farm by day and drive a race car with fury like Dale Earnhardt Sr., the seven-time NASCAR champion, the late and legendary badass who could crumple opponents with just his glare. Dale Jr. can't help but smile at strangers, even the rare ones who flip him off. His genuine sweetness explains why he has no enemies in the Sprint Cup garage—and, perhaps, why in the last seven seasons he had won only twice. Nice doesn't equal fast in NASCAR.
This is an article from the March 3, 2014 issue
But something was different about the Intimidator's son on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. Thirteen years and five days after his father died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt, 39, lay on a couch in his motor coach in the infield. Rain pounded the roof of his new, million-dollar on-track home, parked in stall 45. The 56th running of the Great American Race was in the middle of a record-setting six-hour, 22-minute rain delay, and Earnhardt was on Zappos.com buying shoes. Nearby his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, played hand after hand of Crazy Eights. Then Earnhardt, who was in 18th place when lightning began to fracture the Florida sky, rose to stretch his legs.
Two years older than her brother, Kelley looked at him, long and hard, as he stood in the dim light in a red T-shirt and sweatpants. She knows her brother better than anyone; they have talked or emailed or texted nearly every day for the last decade. And now in his face she saw ... her dad. She saw those piercing Earnhardt eyes, narrowed with resolve. No, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not his daddy, as he still calls him, but Kelley spotted something unfamiliar in him: a crackling sense of assuredness fundamental to making the right split-second decisions at 200 mph.
"His face was just different, like he knew exactly what needed to be done and how he was going to do it," Kelley said. "Nothing was said, but I knew. I knew. It's hard to describe, but this place just brings out the best in him."
Earnhardt had finished second in three of the last four Daytona 500s. He won this race in 2004, but since then he has never finished higher than fifth in the final Cup standings, and heading into Sunday his winless streak had reached 55 races. Being voted the sport's most popular driver for 11 straight years only amplified his anxiety; he felt even more of a disappointment to his ardent supporters. As reporters called him overrated or overhyped, Earnhardt would claim he didn't read stories about himself. But he did, almost every stinging one.
The drivers were summoned back to their cars at 7:28 p.m. Earnhardt marched down pit road to his number 88 Chevy, his eyes locked straight ahead. The engines fired, and the race restarted on Lap 39 under the lights. Within minutes Earnhardt began making moves around the 2.5-mile tri-oval that seemed cribbed from a video game, darting through the smallest of gaps and riding the aerodynamic draft as if he could see the air, a gift he swears was taught to him by his old man. This was restrictor-plate racing as art form, the way Earnhardt weaved his Chevy to the lead, like watching a gold medal slalom skier glide through the gates in perfect rhythm.
While four multicar wrecks left two dozen cars damaged, most of the sport's big names ran up front throughout. Earnhardt teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon challenged late, as did Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt covered every move, nailing his restarts to lead 54 of the last 70 laps, holding off Hamlin over the final two turns. It was by far the most spectacular single-race performance of Junior's 15-year Cup career. On this long, wet night, he indeed drove like the Intimidator, and drew a roar like thunder from the grandstands as he reached out to snatch the checkered flag from the flagman.
"It feels like Dale just won the championship," said Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt's car owner, rushing to Victory Lane. "But this is only the start of something big for him. This is going to be a season to remember."
THEY MET in the fall of 2008. Amy Reimann was an interior designer working on a house Earnhardt was building in rural North Carolina. A native of Victoria, Texas, Reimann knew nothing of racing—"I wouldn't have been able to pick someone like Jeff Gordon out of a lineup," she says—but her blue eyes cast a spell over Earnhardt. They began to date, though she had to teach him how. "Before Amy, I didn't take girls to dinner or a movie. I'd just say, 'Hey, I'm partying. Come over here and let's drink,' " Earnhardt says. "I was spoiled rotten. Everything was about me. Everyone around me did what I said. I didn't listen to anyone. I didn't commit to anything. But then Amy came into my life and changed everything. She showed me what it meant to make sacrifices, to honor commitments, to work hard at things. And I'm not just talking about relationships. I'm talking about my racing as well, and my dedication to it."
Before Reimann walked into his world, Earnhardt was woefully undisciplined behind the wheel. He committed frequent blunders, speeding on pit road, overshooting his pit box, not trusting his instincts (a cardinal sin) and causing crashes. A steady, intelligent significant other doesn't magically transform a driver, of course, but as Richard Petty has said, "When your home life is crap, your racing life is crap. And when your home life is good, your racing life is good."
After Reimann moved in with Earnhardt, she encouraged him to spend more time with Steve Letarte, who had become his crew chief before the 2011 season. Letarte, 34, is married to a lawyer and has two children. He's also as talkative as Earnhardt is reticent. But over dozens of dinners the two shared in Charlotte and other cities on the NASCAR circuit, Earnhardt and Letarte developed a friendship that transcends gear ratios and setup formulas. When Earnhardt ran out of gas on the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2011, less than a mile from seizing his first checkered flag in 105 starts, Letarte expected a postrace rant from his driver. Letarte's gamble on fuel had backfired, but in the garage Earnhardt hugged his crew chief tight. "That was awesome; we're getting closer," Earnhardt told Letarte that night. "Let's keep at this."
"That was the moment everything changed," Letarte said late on Sunday. "Right then I knew I had Dale's complete trust. It freed me up to go with my gut and try to improve the car without second-guessing myself. Even though we lost the race that night, we actually won, in my mind."
That season also marked the beginning of Earnhardt's still-growing relationship with Johnson, who had won five of his six Cup championships. In November 2010, Hendrick moved Earnhardt's number 88 team into the same garage in Charlotte that housed Johnson's number 48 crew. Earnhardt and Letarte began to sit in on Johnson's postpractice debriefings with his crew chief, Chad Knaus—in which Johnson and Knaus would painstakingly review notes on the car's balance, the preferred line around the track and the locations of the best passing zones. Earnhardt employed a skill Reimann had taught him: He sat still and listened. "Jimmie and Chad have set the bar for everyone in this sport, and now for Dale it's like having your brother be the best player on the court," Hendrick says. "You know his secrets. You know why he succeeds. Dale has been very, very good at learning from Jimmie."
That was evident in the Chase last season. After blowing a motor in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway and finishing 35th, Earnhardt scored more points than any driver not named Johnson in the Chase field over the final nine races of 2013, with four top-four finishes in the last five events. In fact, if the new playoff format that NASCAR has implemented for 2014 had been in place last year, Earnhardt would have won his first Cup championship.
Earnhardt's development into a title contender is also rooted in his newfound maturity. The driver who missed early-morning press commitments in his younger days because of boozy late nights now abstains from alcohol for four days before arriving at each track. He's also running on his treadmill on a regular schedule. The late-race mental meltdowns that once plagued Earnhardt are no longer occurring. "Dale and Steve are on the brink of huge success," Johnson said last Friday. "What has surprised me about Dale in getting to know him is how much he wants to succeed. He's a simple, humble, honest guy, and man, he's working his ass off."
By winning on Sunday, Earnhardt essentially locked up a spot in the 2014 Chase. (NASCAR expanded the playoff field this year to 16 drivers, with qualification based on regular-season victories.) This means that he and Letarte can aggressively go for checkered flags in the remaining 25 races of the regular season—taking chances on pit row by changing two tires instead of four, or trying to stretch a fuel run an extra five miles to steal a win. Letarte is leaving the number 88 team at season's end to become a broadcaster for NBC, adding to Earnhardt's sense of urgency to win a championship this season. "My confidence level has never been higher, and that's critical for me," he says. "We're going to run our guts out every week."
THE CLOCK was nearing 2:30 on Monday morning. Wearing a hooded blue sweatshirt, Earnhardt sat in his motor home in the Daytona infield, smartphone in hand. Johnson had been hounding him for several years to join Twitter, but Earnhardt had resisted, wanting to protect his private life. Reimann, aglow even at this small hour, sat close to Earnhardt as he typed his first tweet: "Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to join Twitter. How is everyone doin?" He attached a picture from Victory Lane. Within minutes he had more than 230,000 followers.
He sipped from a bottle of Coors Light and looked out into the empty Daytona infield, still illuminated by the track's towering lights. "I think of my dad when I'm here, but not the way people might imagine," Dale Jr. said. "It's O.K. that he lost his life here. He died driving a race car, his love. I'm O.K. with that. I feel good here now. I have good feelings about him. I think he'd be proud now."
Earnhardt raised his drink to his lips. He closed his eyes, pausing for a second, two, three, savoring the moment like a man who knows his time has finally come.