Junior in no-win situation

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:44 AM ET

If there is an enigma in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing his name is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Here you have the sport's most popular athlete, followed everywhere he goes by a sea of green-clad fans clamouring for nothing more than a nod in their direction.

One would think that after 10 years of that kind of idolatry Earnhardt would be comfortable in his own skin. But that isn't the case.

Earnhardt is shy to the point of being phobic. He would rather chew razor blades than answer questions in public and, if truth be known, he has said himself that he might have been happier being a plumber where the only place you would see his name would be on his shirt pocket.

But that was never going to happen for the son of the great, late Dale Earnhardt.

Being a stock car driver is part of Earnhardt's very DNA. His father matched him up against his older half-brother Kerry and his sister Kelley, as a teenager on the short tracks around Mooresville, N.C., and when he came out the winner he inherited a ride in the family's No. 8 Chevrolet.

And when in the first race of his sophomore Cup season his dad was killed trying to clear the way for his son to win the 2001 Daytona 500, his world changed instantly and dramatically.

Junior, as he was and is known, would never again be able to find a moment of piece in public.

Expectations that would make Charles Dickens shudder, suddenly were placed on his slender shoulders.

He was anointed by his father's fans as the one who would and could build on a legacy that had already attained iconic proportions.

And when Junior went on to be among the best of his class, it wasn't enough. The pressure was on him to be the best of the best.

There was no arguing logic with his devoted fans. His father won seven Cup championships, therefore, Junior must also win seven championships.

Unlike the sons of Mickey Mantle and Gordie Howe, who never came close to their fathers' prowess, Junior looked as though he might just break out at any time and take a run at history.

Because he hasn't, he is now being portrayed by many as an underachiever at best and an outright failure at worst.

The sad thing is that none of it is Junior's own doing.

By anyone's standards, except those heaped on him by fans and the media, Junior has had a very successful career.

Just look at his Sprint Cup statistics: 18 wins, 143 top 10s and nine poles.

By comparison Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick -- who both came into Sprint Cup within a year of Earnhardt -- are considered major success stories with similar records as Junior.

Kenseth was a rookie the same year as Earnhardt and since then also has 18 wins with 178 top 10s and four poles.

Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt's dad at Richard Childress Racing the next season, is another of Junior's contemporaries, who is painted as a winner yet his numbers are far less impressive.

Harvick as a record of 11 wins, 133 top 10s and five poles.

Yet in any conversation at any track in NASCAR's senior circuit most fans would consider both Kenseth and Harvick to be more successful than Junior.

It isn't right and it isn't fair, but it is Junior's burden to bear.

How does he manage those impossible expectations?

The answer may lie in an insightful glimpse into Junior's world written recently by Mark Kriegel -- the national columnist for FOXSports.com.

Kriegel wrote of a friendship Junior developed with Canadian world champion boxer Arturo Gatti, who held the WBC's 140-pound champion belt.

Junior had invited Gatti to his North Carolina home and after a night of partying ask him to step into the ring for a round or two.

Kreigel said that Earnhardt "recalls thinking quite clearly: If you got Dan Marino over to the house, you're gonna want to throw the football around.

Junior revelled at the fact that he got beat up pretty good.

"C'mon, show me something," he remembers telling Gatti. "Show me how to throw a punch. He did."

Junior said he was proud of the result.

"Arturo wore out my face," he said. "It was a blast."

The two forged a friendship that lasted right up to Gatti's tragic death last year.

But that Earnhardt stood in the ring with a world champion boxer shows that just maybe he has the right attitude about those unattainable assumptions he is forced to live with.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos