DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Whether he likes it or not, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the resident poster boy for the monster money-making machine known as stock car racing.
He was the overwhelming fan favorite last year, he'll be the same this year, and likely on into the future.
They can dress him in a tuxedo, have him interviewed on 60 Minutes, or put him in music videos, but he is still Junior - that playful, ornery and seemingly carefree kid. As soon as the folks around NASCAR start taking this all too seriously, it is usually Junior who reminds them, in his aw shucks demeanor, that "this is just about racin'."
Earnhardt approaches the 2005 season, which officially opened with last night's Bud Shootout here at Daytona International Speedway, with characteristic aplomb.
He plans to run every race, win a bunch of them, and always have fun doing it. He is always a risk to curse into an open mike and regularly make a shambles of the English language, and he'll do it with a devilish smile.
"I guess I'm older," said Earnhardt, who turned 30 in October, "but I haven't changed much. I still go at this stuff pretty much the same way I always have. I work hard at racing, but I still have fun at it. This is my job, and I like my job. I feel lucky to be doing this."
Earnhardt. who saw his father die at this track in 2001, watching that fatal crash into the wall in his rearview mirror, had his own brush with death last July. While he was practicing for a road race during a rare NASCAR off week, Earnhardt crashed and had his Corvette burst into flames. He took a 14-second eternity to get out of the car, and suffered second-degree burns on his neck and legs.
"When something like that happens, you think of everything in an instant," Earnhardt said. "That is not the way you want to go out."
Despite his legendary last name, and the fact he has won 15 Cup races, including last year's Daytona 500, Earnhardt still shakes his head at all of the attention that comes his way.
"A lot of this stuff surprises me - people calling and asking me to do Saturday Night Live and the Leno show. I don't think I have the right personality to go out and do those kinds of things, but they keep on calling," he said.
Earnhardt, who won six races in 2004 and has finished in the top 10 in the series championship in three of the last four seasons, doesn't show any pre-race jitters as he prepares to defend his Daytona 500 win from last year.
"Hey, as much as I enjoy being here at Daytona, I think this time it will be even better, because there won't be as much pressure on me," Earnhardt said.
"After last year, I won't have to answer the questions about whether or not I can win the Daytona 500. I can just go there and race like crazy, which is what you're supposed to do. I'm pretty happy with where I'm at. If you're a driver in this sport, then you've got to feel pretty darned good about that."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.