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He knew two things kept him employed -- his last name, which brought sponsorship, and a never-give-up attitude of Hendrick, who couldn't stomach the idea of a legacy as a great owner who couldn't return the sport's favorite son to new heights."There were a few years where I wouldn't have blamed him if he had let me go or moved on to something else or made a change," Earnhardt said.
"To have the opportunity that I did for him to hang on and us to get back to Victory Lane, those are blessings, man."I know not everyone gets that opportunity.
"He's gotten comfortable in his own skin of who he is and who Dale Earnhardt Jr.
is, which is what he's always wanted to be."That's why he turned the hair blonde and did all these things of the younger days to be different and he wasn't my dad.
It might seem far-fetched that the former auto mechanic could find himself as an even bigger celebrity after he retires from NASCAR Cup racing this weekend following the race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Earnhardt has turned from someone who once appeared more reclusive like Howard Hughes into a social media darling.
He has built a wild west town on his property, proposed to his girlfriend at a church his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents attended in Germany and appears as comfortable with stories about him in the National Enquirer as he does in Rolling Stone."It has been odd and unexpected for sure, but I feel fortunate and -- I hate to use the word blessed because everybody uses that word a lot -- but I just feel lucky as hell to not have screwed it up somewhere along the line," Earnhardt said. And yet along the way, he earned 14 consecutive -- likely to be 15 consecutive -- most popular driver awards.
That pairing didn't work that well and Earnhardt fell into a dark place as far as his performance.
"And it's a wonder what we could have accomplished if we would have just focused on racing."But I'm pretty happy with it to be honest with you. By that time, he had lived two years without his father, who perished on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
I had a lot of fun and won a lot of races."Having fun, winning races and happiness outside the race car could have eluded someone who never drove the same way nor had many of the same interests of his father, a legend in the sport still revered nearly 17 years after his death and whose legacy and shadow have followed Earnhardt with every step."I don't know that you are always out from under it, but it didn't bother me," Earnhardt said. Earnhardt never dreamed he could match his father's seven championships.
When I was a kid before I started racing in the Xfinity Series, I thought that I was never going to get a chance and then if I did, I wasn't going to run well enough to maintain that opportunity and keep progressing."I just didn't look at myself with a lot of confidence. And that's the time in your life when the grounded-ness was instilled. Those things were established for us very early on in our lives."His father's death incredibly impacted him, both on the track and off. That is all he wanted to do."And I think that was his philosophy all the way to when his dad died.
I didn't think, 'Man I'm a great driver, boy just give me a shot.' From what I could tell, I didn't know whether I was a good driver or not."If that sounds like a grounded person, there's a reason for it, said his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller."For Dale and I, when we were growing up, life was really normal," Earnhardt Miller said. He seemed lost at times, felt uncomfortable as the superstar (especially, in of all places, bar settings), and couldn't find a footing for his role on his team, let alone the sport. When his dad died, it was kind of like he didn't have anybody to please anymore. He didn't know if he wanted to do this anymore or that.
When Earnhardt went to Hendrick, he was joined by his cousin Tony Eury Jr.