Juniors Free Spirit

Fred Neil, the songwriter, died a couple of weeks ago, and it occurred to me Neil’s most famous composition, “Everybody’s Talking,” reminds me of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Harry Nilsson, also deceased, is the singer I associate most with the song. You know the words. Everybody knows the words:
“I’m going where the sun keeps signing
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes (woh-oo-oh)
Skippin’ over the northeast wind
Sailin’ on summer breeze
Skimmin’ over the ocean like a stone.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. would probably frown at being identified with this tune, being a relic of the late 1960s or early 1970s, I can’t remember exactly which. Earnhardt Jr. supposedly likes alternative-rock music, whatever that is. Here’s to Lollapalooza, whatever that is.

Just so we don’t get lost in one of those belabored points – “one of them belabored-point deals,” I can imagine a race-car driver saying – let the record note that the late, great Dale Earnhardt never brought “Everybody’s Talking” to mind.

When the kid’s father was still the Tyrannosaurus Rex of race tracks, ruling his domain with an iron head (uh, hand), I was more likely to conjure up a Waylon Jennings composition like:
“Ladies love outlaws
Like babies love stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
Outlaws touch ladies somewhere deep down in their soul.”

To borrow a popular cliché, Earnhardt ruled. Earnhardt Jr. just moves along down the road, loving life.

To each his own, even between chips of the same block.

Junior’s free spirit comes in handy these days, because if he let everything bother him, he’d wind up in what was once popularly referred to as “the funny farm.” Men in white suits used to take you to the funny farm. You don’t hear much about the funny farm anymore. Maybe it’s a good thing.

“Last year seems like five years ago, almost,” says Dale Jr. “It was a really hard year, as far as our race team. Our race team has adjusted to the Winston Cup Series, but it was a lot more of a transition than I expected. It's going to take a couple more years ‘til I really feel a part of it. This year I've had to learn to take things in stride and concentrate on the next day or the next project.”

Yeah, I’ll say. Dad’s loss was the biggest for the South since Elvis. Before that, “Fireball” Roberts, and before that, Hank Williams. (Interesting how tragedy alternates between singers and racers in these parts.)

It’s not enough that Dale Jr. has had to get over the loss of his daddy. A lot of people lose their daddies. Not everybody gets reminded of it every other time he breathes for the rest of his life. A man can cope with tragedy, but it sure makes it hard when everybody and his civic club keep reminding him of it.

“I just look at racing maybe a little bit different than some guys do,” says Earnhardt Jr. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than be going around the track in a race car. It’s something I’ve fallen in love with, but I also had just as much fun working in a dealership changing oil, going to lunch with the guys and going to the Christmas party. I can take things or leave things. I don’t know why.”

The fact is, without his daddy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a whale of a season. He hasn’t taken the world by storm for about a month, which he did as a rookie, but he has taken it by storm for a Saturday night, when he won the Pepsi 400. For most of the time, he has merely been good. Real good. Consistent was heretofore not a term often used in relation with the so-called “Little E.”

“In the Busch Series (1998-1999), we’d go to a track and win, and then we’d go back the next year and expect to do well, and sometimes we wouldn’t,” he recalls, citing another of life’s lessons. “It’s all according to the setup you’ve got that day. You really can’t expect to do it again. By the time you go back, it’s a totally different race, and it’s tougher, with the technology you’ve got today. You really can’t take things for granted.”

I think the Stones said it, “You can’t always get what you want (but you can try so hard).”

Yet the boy - the legacy, the successor and the symbol of hope for fans still mourning the loss of their hero – keeps on learning. He draws on the stern lessons of his father, but he has to make his own conclusions.

“The important thing is personnel, just having the right people,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “You can’t put a price on having great people around you. My dad said, ‘You can’t just hire and fire people to make the team; you’ve got to utilize what you’ve got,’ and that’s true. But one bad apple can spoil things, and that’s something we’ve found out over the past three or four years. Sometimes we get so greedy with success that you forget where you came from, and I think that’s something we had to get used to.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is eighth in the current points standings, miles ahead of his rookie performance. He has won a race – and not just any race, but the return to the track that claimed his father’s life – and he has won a pole. He has finished four times in the Top 5 and eight times in the Top 10. Barely past halfway in the season, his team has earned $2,683,476 in purses.

“You’ve got to pay attention to consistency,” he says, and he says it with such a conviction that you could swear he was the first guy to ever say it, and yet you know that, way back, somewhere soon after Adam and Eve, maybe about the time Cain and Abel let greed get in the way, somebody else noticed that consistency was important.

He’s just a philosopher-king, at least amidst his surroundings, where the dinosaurs would definitely whip the philosophers’ butts in a scrap. But he hangs right in there with the dinosaurs. He lived with one for an awfully long time.

Dale Jr. can hang, and if they want to add two more weeks to an already 38-out-of-52-weeks-in-the-goldang-year schedule next year, Junior says bring it on.

“I like it,” he says. “I liked it last year. I don’t know. Yeah, it’s long. It’s awful long. But what else are we gonna do? When you’re not racing, you’re sitting at home. They’re talking about adding two more, and I wish they wouldn’t, but I’m not running the show.

“NASCAR has to worry about taking us to an audience, man. You complain about two more races, and I’m sitting here hating life because I think I race too much now, but when the season is over, I’m just dying to race again.”

Tony Eury Jr., the son of Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, the lifelong friend and cousin of Earnhardt Jr., and the “car chief” of the team, scratches his head at the young man who drives the race car.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Eury Jr. says. “I think a lot of us at the shop feel kinda like he (Earnhardt Jr.) does, but we can’t feel exactly the way he does. Every week, you’ve got a tribute going on… questions to deal with, and the fact we’re having a lot better season is pretty remarkable.”

For the folks who work in the carnival, the rest of the world seems strange.

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