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Junior finds himself

The race car driver with the golly-gee smile says he's feeling relieved these days.

And you can see it in his behavior, too. In the way Dale Earnhardt Jr. works with his team, focused, even delighted to put in longer hours. In the way he speaks to his fans and the media, eyes wandering to find the right thought, then locking onto the questioner instead of staring at his feet.

In the way he's driving his race car lately, using the skill his late father, Dale Earnhardt, the man whose stare could rust an exhaust pipe, once did.

And, perhaps most telling, in the way he opened the hood on his feelings and thoughts in a letter he wrote recently to a 16-year-old version of himself, part of a segment played on CBS This Morning.

At 16, Earnhardt had not yet started his Sprint Cup career, which he continues today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. He had not yet been called the new face of racing - or overrated, or underachieving, or adorable, or sexy, or reckless, or immature, or talented, or any of the other adjectives used to describe a Southern boy whose story could grip Broadway for months.

What he had at the time, was pressure. At least that's the way he described it in the CBS writing exercise:

Your father's accomplishments on the race track already cast a pretty heavy shadow over your existence. He's going to accomplish more in the years to come, and your fear of living anonymously and forgotten - that's going to grow.

Junior was 27 the day his father, winner of seven Cup titles and the man who nudged Cup racing into mainstream sports in the 1980s, died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Horrific, sure, but oh so thick with drama. What better way for a man like this to die? What better setting?

Since then, Junior has had the stress of following his famous father, certainly not easy when you're shy and withdrawn, plus you have doubts about how good you really are.

Even back in high school.

You always did and always will shoot for the "C" on your report card, anything more than that is always going to be a surprise to you, right?

A grade of "C" just won't do. Not now. Not when Earnhardt is one of 12 drivers to qualify for the Chase, the cup's season-ending, two-month version of a playoff format to crown the series champion.

Not when he's pushing 40 and carries himself with a new sense of self, a spark that could fire up his car.

Junior spoke in the Media Center this weekend. He spoke like a driver who expects to win, not like the driver who told a sports magazine recently that he once felt like he was "driving my ass off just to stay out of the way."

Now, after a solid eighth-place finish last weekend in Chicago, in the first of 10 Chase races, he says this: "I was a little disappointed. . . . We're going to need a little bit more than that to win the championship. This is a track that I feel like owes me one. . . . There's a bit of urgency. Not a whole lot, just enough to keep us motivated and real positive."

This is not to say Junior has flopped during his career. He hasn't. He won back-to-back titles in the late 1990s, in the top feeder system to the Cup circuit.

He's won 19 career Cup races (Dale Sr. won 76) since joining the Cup tour 12 years ago. He finished third in overall points in 2003, fifth the next season and again in '06, and seventh last year.

But in this sport, in the big league of American racing, greatness is measured in championships.

Even more so when your last name is Earnhardt.

So when Junior finished 25th in points, then 21st just a few years back, and when he endured a drought few stars ever see, winning just three times in seven years, and when his team changed crew chiefs like they were spark plugs, and when many sensed his heart wasn't into racing like his dad's had been, criticism followed.

Asked about his earlier years, when he partied late, left tracks early and never seemed to throw himself into his team, Earnhardt fidgets in his chair.

Then he scratches his neck and folds his arms across his chest.

Then he fidgets some more.

Then he pauses.

Then, finally, he says, "I think I could have put forth a better account of myself overall as a competitor. But at the time you don't realize what kind of opportunity you've got, what kind of . . ."

His thoughts shift and he pauses again.

"There are a lot of trappings and things that you want to do that don't involve racing. Just go have fun, so you goof off a lot. I can't really sit here and have regrets about opportunities and chances gone by. I do find it a bit unfortunate that it took me this long to realize how much work I could have been doing."

Listening to Junior, you don't hear a "C" student. Not with this sort of self-examination. Not with this kind of honesty and thoughtfulness and, yes, even vulnerability, a trait his dad, nicknamed the Intimidator, never showed.

You just got your driver's license. Your heart belongs to no one . . . and you're going to spend a lot of nights in the bed of your S10 pickup truck out in the field staring up at the stars worrying about your future.

That future is bright, like Friday, a perfect day at the Loudon track. Junior has earned millions, in prize money, in salary, in endorsements. One report put his worth at more than $28 million last season alone. And he's been named the most popular driver on the Cup circuit nine years in a row.

And money plus fame plus a really big name, minus a Cup title, leads to questions.

Questions about hype. Questions about greatness. Questions about paying dues before getting paid big bucks.

Bridget Gurda moves through the line at a speedway entrance with her friends. They are three energetic women from upstate New York, in town for their annual girls' weekend.

They're drinking something they call beer punch, which includes beer, vodka, fruit and good times.

They're playful and talkative, but they get serious when asked a simple question.

Is Junior overrated?

"Yes," Gurda says, despite the fact that Junior is her favorite driver. "You have to earn what you get, and he's got his father's name."

Lori Augustyn, a Kasey Kahne fan, adds, "People expected way too much from him. I think he put too much pressure on himself. Now it sounds like someone spoke to him about that. If I could have talked to him, I would have told him to relax."

You're going to be so deathly frightened of potential failure that you're not going to realize just how much fun you're having. . . . Overall, you need to just be more sure of yourself. . . . You have a great heart and it's going to stay with you throughout. So don't be so timid and worrisome about the future so much that you can't enjoy the present.

It's been a long time coming, this maturation process, this evolution, this coming of age for a bashful driver who grew up under a spotlight hotter than an overheated engine.

Junior says he's focused on winning his first title. He says the parts of his team fit together nicely. His new crew chief. His new commitment. And, we should mention, his new girlfriend. That's right, ladies.

Junior is spoken for.

Her name is Amy Reimann, and she helped Junior write that letter at his home in North Carolina earlier this month.

The letter he says helped free him from something that had held him back.

He agrees to add a few more thoughts about the letter, after his press conference ends, ignoring the entourage that wants to shuttle him out the door.

"I thought it was a real challenge to look back and try to dig up some of those memories," Junior says. "It was going to be something that was difficult, and I wanted to force myself through it. I thought it would be sort of liberating, a little bit of relief doing something like that."

In one segment of the letter, Junior writes that he comes home after a wreck. His father charges through the door like he's driving into Turn 2 at Indy and wonders why his son is "sitting on his butt feeling sorry for himself."

The two head outside, to the back porch, for a two-hour talk.

He is going to finally assure you of what lies ahead. It's not the end of your career like you thought, it's just the beginning of a very, very long incredible journey.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)