Icommentary:/I Taking It E Zy

With all that he’s been through this year, one couldn’t really blame Dale Earnhardt Jr. for being a recluse. He couldn’t be blamed for being melancholy and never walking around with a smile on his face.

The death of his father – perhaps the biggest icon the motorsports industry has ever seen – in February at the Daytona 500 could have put “Little E” into a deep, dark depression for an infinite length of time, and it would have been understandable. The person that had taught him everything he knows about racing, and had helped bring him to the level of success and fame he has achieved, was gone.

But Earnhardt Jr. isn’t depressed. Sure, he’s grieved over losing his “daddy,” and says there isn’t a day that goes by he doesn’t think about the wonderful relationship he and “The Intimidator” enjoyed.

Life, however, goes on, and Earnhardt Jr. is trying to live his to the fullest extent.

Some – especially some of the higher-ups at NASCAR – may not like some of the things he says and does, and some may chalk some of his antics up to youthful exuberance.

But one thing is for sure – and you can take it to heart – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a breath of fresh air for the sport of stock-car racing.

He may have fame and he may have fortune, but he’s virtually the same “Little E” that broke into the Busch Series a few short years ago – a wide-eyed youngster with a zest for living.

Although he does enjoy his privacy at times (he was understandably shielded from the media in the months following his father’s death), he’s very forthright about most things in his life and could never be described as a “closed book.”

“Recently, a young girl came up and asked me, ‘Why are you so open with your life? Why aren’t you private with your thoughts and everything?’” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I thought that was an interesting question, and I believe it really made me look at myself and say, ‘Why am I like that?’ Teresa (Earnhardt) said to me the other day, ‘Every question everybody asks you, you just answer right away.’

“That’s just the way I’ve been all year and even in years past. I believe it’s because I want to try to let people know more about me just so they know who I am and who my father was – we’re two different people.

“There will be days when someone will say, ‘You’re just like your dad,’ or ‘Boy, you look like your dad.’ But, we’ll always bee two different people, and I believe that’s why I am so open about everything, so that people can see that.”

Earnhardt Jr. has always been gracious and accommodating to the media and his fans. If he doesn’t like a question a member of the media might ask him, he won’t get upset, become surly, or storm out of the room. He’ll just politely either dismiss the question or answer it in a few words and move on.

There are others – Tony Stewart immediately comes to mind – who could take a lesson or two from Earnhardt Jr.’s demeanor. Stewart’s antics have been well-chronicled this season, the latest coming after he won at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night when he gave a reporter a hard time for asking a question he wasn’t thrilled with.

Stewart could probably never do the type of interviews Earnhardt Jr. has done. Last year, a very interesting and informative article on Junior was conducted by Rolling Stone magazine, as well as one by People magazine.

He also recently did an interview with Playboy magazine. All of us who perused that one could actually say we “read it for the articles.”

Junior pulled no punches during that interview. When asked what he thought the worst track on the circuit was, without hesitation he said, “Darlington Raceway.” He said, “It’s old, it’s egg-shaped, and it’s full of seashells. They used crushed rock and seashells in the asphalt mix. It’s so course that you get an awesome grip for four or five laps, but then your tires wear out and you’re just sliding around trying not to hit something. Really, go out on that track and rub your hand on it, it will actually cut you.”

The article caught the attention of track public relations director Cathy Mock, who brought the interview up during Junior’s press conference during media day at the track recently. The exchange between Mock and Junior was light and entertaining, and Mock presented Junior with an award called the “Shelly,” in honor of his words to Playboy.

Typical Junior. But you won’t find him getting in trouble with his sponsor over such things.

Budweiser, the sponsor of his No. 8 Chevy, couldn’t be happier with their 26-year-old spokesperson. In fact, he fits the bill with Budweiser like a glove. He’s a perfect representative of the product.

“Luckily I’ve got a sponsor like Budweiser because they match my persona and my personality a lot,” he said. “Most of the guys I really know well within the company like the same things I like, and they’re really honest and blunt about things. That’s the way I like to be, and that’s the kind of company they are.

“We can go out and do a Rolling Stone or a Playboy and say the things we want to say and act however we want to act. That’s fun. Budweiser has been really comfortable and really happy with that type of image for me.

“If you went back two or three years ago and asked (NASCAR Chairman) Mr. (Bill) France Jr. or (NASCAR President) Mike Helton about that, they might not have been very favorable toward having someone do those things or say those things. But we’ve taken the sport to a whole lot bigger audience. There are people that watch MTV, which I’ve been on there, that have probably never seen a race before, so it’s really good for the sport. In a way, I guess I’m doing my own part. You can probably say that I’m a better representative for Budweiser than I am for NASCAR.”

Considering the audience NASCAR is trying to draw, that might not necessarily be so, to a large degree. NASCAR needs personalities just like Junior’s, without question.

Junior’s “rock and roll image” will be enhanced even more Sept. 6, when he appears as a presenter at the MTV Music Awards in New York City. That’s an event he’s very much looking forward to, but is a bit apprehensive about.

“I’m kinda nervous about that,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, and everybody I’ve talked to about it said it’s something I should do. I just wanted to make sure it’s going to be perceived the right way – to my fans, my family, and the people that matter. I think everybody’s cool with it. I’m going to go there and have fun. I’m just curious as to how we will be perceived there, curious as to what kind of reaction we’ll get from the people there with the show and the fans of the show. It should be interesting.”

There’s one thing that has changed Earnhardt, Jr. over the past couple of years. He’s certainly a bit more savvy about his business, and he’s definitely more leery about the trials and tribulations life can hand us at any time.

That, coupled with the fact his team has quickly matured and has certainly got the resources, may play out into a Winston Cup championship for Junior in the not-so-distant future.

You think that might be popular with the fans? NASCAR might even consider it a breath of fresh air.

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