July 6, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
When he talks, you want to listen. First, you never know what he’s going to say. Second, he’s not the kind of guy to give pat answers to standard questions. Believe it or not, Junior seems to THINK after he’s asked a question.
That might seem a little harsh on Junior, but it’s really a knock on some other Winston Cup drivers. Some of those guys just seem to answer questions with predetermined answers, like a calculator spitting out numbers.
But Junior is hardly a calculator. Sure, he’s 27 years old, and some of the stuff he says makes you scratch your head, but more often than not, Earnhardt Jr. says something that makes you realize this guy is a thinker.
He met with reporters in the expansive Daytona International Speedway earlier this week, covering subjects from fatherhood to last year’s dramatic Pepsi 400 to his difficult 2002 season.
And his answers were, of course, noteworthy.
So let’s let Junior do the talking. You probably want to read him more than me anyway, which I don’t really understand since I’m just as good-looking. That was a joke, people.
Fatherhood: “There ain’t no rush. I think every guy looks forward to fatherhood and having that chance to do some of the things you did with your dad. Losing my father may have accelerated that just a little bit, but, like I said, I ain’t in no rush. I want to make sure that she’s the right girl.”
The 2001 Pepsi 400: “My dad and Michael were really, really good friends, and they shared quite an interesting relationship. Even though there was quite an age difference between the two of them they seemed to really enjoy spending a lot of time together just as if they were high-school friends. I always kind of envied that relationship that my father had with Michael because I thought that me and Michael was a little closer to my age, that me and him would have made pretty good friends. He had been in the sport for so long and he was such a good personality and it was always fun to have him around. I remember when I was hanging around the shop working on my Late Model Michael would come over with Buffy and stuff and they would ride horses with Dad and whatnot and just hang out. I feel like the son that’s kinda hanging around, and aggravating them, but it was pretty neat to hang out with Michael and be around Michael. And then when they talked about him driving for us I was like, wow, that would be great, we’ll be teammates. Well be just like buddies. I’ve always wanted that relationship with Michael to be friends and be able to hang out and do the things that him and Dad did together. So, it was pretty cool when we won that race together and how we’ve kind of teamed up over the past couple of restrictor-place races to get to victory. You see, as his performance gets better, his competitiveness comes out in him and we almost get to the point sometimes where we vie over who should’ve won, who should’ve followed who. But I feel like, no matter what the feeling is going into the race, when it comes down to it we got each other’s back. If we don’t do it for ourselves we do it for Daddy. What matters is to get a win for DEI and the Cup is definitely priority over any individual.”
On the 2002 season: “It has been a bit of a disappointment so far. We started off the season running real well at some race tracks that we normally didn’t run well at like Darlington, and Martinsville and Bristol. I was joking: We were testing somewhere a couple of weeks, and we were joking that right around Martinsville when the inspectors started talking about traction control and all that stuff. I guess we took ours off and everybody still got theirs.
“I think it all has gone downhill pretty good since the California race, where we got wrecked pretty hard there. It’s surprising to me, and I’ve seen it with our team and other teams in the past what a race like that can do to you and how it can really take the wind out of your sails. It just seems like we haven’t been able to rebound.
On his role at Dale Earnhardt Inc.: “Well, I don’t really have any kind of label or anything like that that I can put on myself, but I, just as well as many other people like (engine builder) Richie Gilmore, assist Ty Norris in some decisions that he may make; or he may ask for advice or I may give it to him from time to time. I like to feel like I have an influence on some of the decisions that are made. Aside from that, I’m somebody that talks to employees, somebody employees can talk to about what’s happening, why we made this decision or is this the best thing to do or what do you think about this or what do you think about that. I don’t think I will ever be able to fulfill a fraction of the role my dad played in the company. But he was that kind of guy that we don’t have anymore that the employees could come up to and say, ‘Man, I really wanted to get these couple of days’ vacation. What can I do to make it up or make it happen?’
“I try to be that when and if I can. It’s so early to tell right now. You want to snap your fingers and be the man, but I think the best thing for us as a future is we eventually have to bring somebody in that can be the president of the company that can make major decisions. Underneath that, I think we need some sort of a committee, some sort group of people such as myself and Ty Norris and Richie Gilmore to help make decisions over each certain department. We do plan on putting together a Busch program in the next year so that’s going to be just another department, another faction to deal with.”
On owning a Busch team: “I’m going to have hopefully a lot of input on the personnel that works within the team and how the cars are built and kind of down to the brass specifics of what goes on with the team and try to learn a little bit about what DEI is all about and try to – without putting my driving career in trouble – try to learn more about being a car owner and more of what those things [entail].”
On being the heavy favorite in Saturday’s race: “I like it. There’s not many times I ever came into a Winston Cup race feeling like a heavy favorite. It’s a good feeling. I feel like a heavy favorite. We’re definitely the guy to beat. That’s a good feeling. It should be a lot of fun. Never, never (have I) went into a race weekend where I was a heavy favorite. I’ve wanted to come in here with the attitude that they’re going to have to take it from me if they want it. With the luck we’ve had, I’m looking over my shoulder.”
On his credibility within NASCAR: “I’m only in my third season. I am the son of one of the greatest drivers. I’m not quite one of the greatest drivers yet. I’d like to be in the next 50 greatest drivers of NASCAR book that they put out. Maybe when they revise the thing, (they could) plug a few out, put me in there.”
Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com