Book Review: Driver 8

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The long anticipated book by Dale Earnhardt Junior was released today and like the driver himself, the anticipation measured up to the hype. In this era of politically correct answers, an almost paranoid refusal to cause controversy, and blandness, Driver #8 is the real deal, an honest look at life as NASCAR's most anticipated Rookie of the Year candidate in history.

Driver #8 isn't an autobiography of Junior, but rather a recap of his 2000 Winston Cup season which saw him win a pair of races and the Winston, but narrowly lose out to Matt Kenseth for Rookie of the Year honors when the wheels fell off the 8 team's season late in the year. (Sometimes almost literally.) Dale Junior is listed as author with with Jade Gurss listed as co-author. Gurss is Dale's PR person and one of the best practitioners of the almost lost art of preparing PR releases that are timely and informative but also entertaining. His fingerprints appear in some sections, but for the most part it's pure uncensored Dale Earnhardt Junior telling his own tale.

The book chronicles the 2000 season on and off the track with chapters on each race run the year. It begins with a tentative and young driver unsure he's ready to live up to the all the hype at that year's Daytona 500 despite having won two consecutive Busch Series titles. It continues with the stories of some disappointing races early that season including the now infamous Atlanta crash caused by telemetry equipment an outside firm installed on an otherwise potentially dominant race car, and the disaster at Darlington that threatened to tear the 8 team at it seams. It continues with the elation of the dominant first Winston Cup victory at Texas, followed soon after by another win at Richmond and a dominant two weeks at Charlotte that had the team sitting on top of the world. But it also chronicles the way things fell apart after the first Dover race and the disappointing end to what could have been an unprecedented rookie season. The emotional toll on Junior and the team is evident in the title of the last chapter, "Put Us Out of Our Misery, You Know What I Mean?" There's a touching epilogue added to the ending of the book detailing to the extent he was able to, the emotional roller coaster of the 2001 Daytona 500 that saw Junior finish second only to learn of the tragic last lap death of his hero, biggest cheerleader, and father, the late Dale Earnhardt whose name Junior carries into the brave new world of "Post-Intimidator" NASCAR.

Junior tells the story of that year of his life in brutally honest fashion. When he messed up he's harsher on himself than any media writer would dare be for fear of his legions of fans and their outraged reactions. While quick to note the benefits of being in the maelstrom of media hype (NFL cheerleaders, restored classic Camaros and Corvettes, a private club in his basement, and all the free Bud you can drink which is plenty) he also notes the downside of the carnival. (Being cursed by fans who he didn't sign autographs for despite his best efforts, paralyzing days of self doubt, and a determined struggle to maintain some semblance of a normal life amidst all the hype.) In his book Junior comes across as down to earth, honest, realistic, and possessed of a sharp sense of humor sometimes missing in his soundbite interviews on TV. That sense of humor is usually self-deprecating and at its best when times are difficult, probably a valuable asset for a Winston Cup driver. Some folks at Goodyear, Chase Authentics, NHIS, Homestead, and even on one occasion Chevrolet might not be all that thrilled with the honest tone of this book but race fans will surely be delighted.

If the rest of the world realizes what a big deal the second incarnation of Dale Earnhardt is, the hype seems lost on him. Dale is awestruck to meet minor musicians, WWF stars, Rolling Stone magazine employees, and even local radio personalities as if they were more famous than he. In his own mind he's just some guy for Mooresville, North Carolina who happens to drive a racecar and the son of a NASCAR legend. In one telling section of the book one of People's "Top Sexiest Men" recounts the agony of a girlfriend who dumped him at age 12 through a note delivered via a friend and made him cry in front of his dad. It wasn't until the People Magazine story and his 2000 Winston win he was able to have the last laugh. Or maybe the memory still haunts him. In the book Earnhardt comes off as far more introspective than he does in his media coverage.

There's some surprising information contained in the book including how vehemently opposed Dale Junior is to any form of bigotry. Because of its contemporary nature the book offers a real glimpse into the sometimes-uneasy mindset of Winston Cup drivers facing a restrictor plate race. And with all the perks of stardom, Junior details what it's like to try to deal with a particularly intoxicated and relentless fan when you are fear of your own safety. 99% of race fans are great, he notes. It's the other 1% who scare him. And in a crowd of 150,000 that one- percent is a not insignificant number of folks.

No book is without its imperfections. Junior doesn't have the most vast vocabulary in the business, but then a race car driver with an ordinary vocabulary is more able to tell what it's like to be a Winston Cup driver than a more articulate writer who has never raced could convey. Most books will start with the protagonist facing challenges and failure, but end on a happier note. In Driver #8, as Junior details how battle weary and ready he is for the season to be over, some readers will feel the same way about the book as it grows ever more dispirited towards the end, but then Earnhardt was forced to deal with nasty reality in the way fiction writers are not. And parents of younger Earnhardt Jr. fans may take exception to some of the language in the book, though if your kid is 12 and you don't think he already knows these words you're living in dreamland.

In a way it's ironic. Much of the world wants to label Dale Earnhardt Junior the sequel, The Intimidator Part 2. But in reading Driver #8, I was struck many times how Junior seems to be not the Second Coming of the Intimidator but the next Tim Richmond, his father's one time archrival and buddy. But in the end Dale Junior comes across as neither the next Dale Earnhardt nor the next Tim Richmond. He is determined to face life on his own terms as the first Dale Earnhardt Junior and the sport is the better for it. Even people who might not particularly enjoy his public image will be glad they read this book, and think more highly of its author once they are finished. I highly recommend you add Driver #8 to your racing library. This may be the book that gets you through the off-season with hope for 2002 in Winston Cup, and there's a potential movie contained within that could benefit NASCAR more than the new network deal ever possibly will.

Driver #8 should be available at any decent bookstore near you if you live south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi. Otherwise you can obtain a copy at the usual on-line sources including Amazon.com, Half.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Borders.com etc.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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