The Son Also Races

Inside Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s $880,000 custom motor home is a shelf whose contents hint at his complicated role as the race-car-driving son of a martyred NASCAR legend. The cabinet used to be filled with Junior's playthings, and some remain: CDs of obscure rock bands, computer games and copies of Playboy. "That blonde there is hotter-'an-dammit," says the 27-year-old bachelor, ogling a centerfold. "Don't get much better lookin' than that." But since Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal crash at last year's Daytona 500, the Playmates have been joined by keepsakes pushed on Junior by his father's following. He flips through homemade photo collages showing his dad surrounded by fans' cheesy poetry. "A little flea-marketish, you know what I'm saying?" he says. Then he fingers a particularly blurry snapshot. "People do this all the time," he says. "They'll be like 'You gotta have this' "--like it's a long-lost family heirloom, he jokes--"and it's a picture of my dad's backside." Before the crash, Junior had few photos of his father--indeed, their relationship was never picture-perfect. But now, even as he mocks fans who create shrines to Dale Senior, he's loath to throw away the most mediocre shots. "It's good to have some extras," he says.

As this year's racing season hits cruising speed, the cameras are in constant close-up on the young man driving the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy. Like JFK Jr. or Prince William, this son of an icon has become an object of fascination himself. And after a slow start in his third full season on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit, in recent weeks Junior has been driving near the front of the pack. In 2001 he finished eighth in the points total, and won three races and $5.8 million in prize money; as of last week he was ranked sixth. "I'm pretty pumped to be where we are," Junior tells NEWSWEEK. But his celebrity has eclipsed those numbers. Judging from the applause, he's the crowd's favorite. He starred in ads that aired during the Super Bowl and the Olympics; his recent book, "Driver No. 8," hit No. 4 on The New York Times bestseller list. Junior inherited many of his fans from his father, but he's attracted new ones, too, with huge crossover appeal to the MTV crowd. That attention comes at a price. Richard Petty worries about Junior's ability to focus on driving amid growing celebrity distractions. But he sees no shortage of talent. "He can be as good as his dad," he says.

If Earnhardt Sr. was proud of his son's following him into the driver's seat, the dad rarely showed it. Junior's parents divorced when he was 3. Dale Senior remarried and started a new family; because of his travel schedule, he had limited time for his son. Even when Junior started racing at 16, his father never came to his races and provided little encouragement. In 1999, the Earnhardts raced against each other for the first time. Junior was ecstatic. "I didn't give a f--- about the race--I just wanted to be out there on the same straightaway, to watch him right in front of me," he says. His father couldn't have cared less. "He approached it just like it was any other race." The armchair analysis is that Junior began racing to become closer to a distant father. He doesn't disagree. He lies back in his trailer, eyes closed in Freudian repose. "I wanted to impress him," he says. "I could have went and done other things, but no matter how successful I'd been... it wouldn't have been as impressive to him as winning a race."

Junior won two Winston Cup races before his father died. Since then, he's emerged as a contender, proving especially successful on the long tracks at Daytona and Talladega. The years he spent fixing his beaters have made him one of NASCAR's most mechanically knowledgeable drivers; his pit crew praises his ability to trouble-shoot the car by feel. But he's still learning the tricks required to run fast at different tracks, and his team struggles to get his car to perform consistently. Junior's team also worries that his growing celebrity status could slow him down. While other drivers test their cars, Junior appears in cologne advertisements, throws out the first pitch at baseball games or consults with videogame developers. At tracks he strides through crowds, wordlessly firing off one-handed autographs, Zorro-like, always hiding behind his sunglasses. He's not entirely comfortable with his celebrity. "When you have your shades on," Junior says, "people can't look you in the eye. They can't see you. You're not sorry of being anything."

While other drivers are practiced pitchmen who avoid controversy, Junior speaks his mind--usually in a semigrammatical, drawling poetry built mostly of expletives. (A sample stanza: "If my f-----g car wasn't such a piece of s--t, I'd be kicking their f-----g a---s because I'm so much better than these sons of b-----s.") When NEWSWEEK asks how he balances his party-boy image with his responsibilities as a Budweiser spokesman, Junior scoffs. "I'm not a social drinker. If I'm gonna drink, I'm drinking to get drunk," he says, describing how he and his friends "rip into" cases of Bud two to three nights a week, sometimes drinking 12 or 15 beers apiece. (He says he doesn't drink on race weekends.)

His father's death hung over racetracks all last season, but this year the prerace moments of silence have become less frequent. Still, the risk of drivers dying violently remains. Junior understands fans' perverse attraction to crashes. "When I was a kid, I thought that was the coolest part about racing," he says, remembering how he'd bought videotapes of spectacular racing crashes as a teenager. "I know when I go out there I could die," he says. "But if I quit driving race cars because of that, I wouldn't be living." So each weekend he joins the rest of NASCAR's contenders, playing the odds and trying to keep Jeff Gordon from advancing on the records set by seven-time champs Richard Petty and Dale Senior. Fans expect him to pick up some trophies for himself along the way.