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Dale Jr.'s wish: Remember dad

Editor's note: In the first and most extensive interview he has given in 2010 regarding Dale Earnhardt's upcoming Hall of Fame induction, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked one-on-one with Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler about his late father. The interview - conducted over two separate days in late April - has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. It has been nine years since your father's death at Daytona. As the years pass, what is it you hope people remember about him?

The one thing that you're always scared is going to evaporate is how he made people feel when he walked into a room. He entered a room and changed its atmosphere. He had just such a powerful personality. Not like the power of a king, but just this energy that just filled the room.

And that stuff is so easy to forget. One day, it will be hard to recall that. One day I'm worried that everybody will just be looking at pictures and stats of him and that will be it. They'll just be looking at him in a two-dimensional sort of way.

But he was three-dimensional. When he was at the track, you knew he was there, even if you couldn't see him. You could just feel it. And that was an awesome feeling.

Q: You are 35 years old now and have carried your father's name your entire life. You told me once that having that name was both a burden and an honor. What are your thoughts about it now?

Mostly pride. I feel a lot of pride in it. It does make a couple of things tough, but it opens more doors than it closes. I guess I will always be forever grateful for him to have wanted to do that at that moment when I was born.

Q. How often do you think of your father?

It's always kind of hovering in the back of your mind, kind of like the hum of an air conditioner. Not something that bothers you - something you can get used to living with. It's a part of who you are.

It's a good thing in most ways when I think of him because it's definitely something that keeps me making better decisions more often. I make a lot of decisions based on feeling that he's over my shoulder still, and I'm glad for that.

Q. You grew up mostly in a home you shared with your father and your stepmother, Teresa. What are some of your earliest memories of your father racing?

I got to go to some of the races, not all of them. When I was going to the races, I was more interested in what I was going to do when I got there than in actually watching the race. There was a pretty big group of kids there - drivers' kids, crew chiefs' kids and so on - and we all just kind of goofed off.

Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to the mechanical side at a younger age. A lot of weekends, though, I spent at home because of school and stuff. And not all of the races were on TV back then. I remember having the radio going really loud, so you could hear it throughout the house wherever you were, and the race being on. I'd be listening to the race and playing Matchbox cars on the carpet. Those are good memories.

Q. What was the advice he most often gave you?

He wasn't extraordinarily going out of his way to pour advice on us every day. He was just a father who expected you to go to school, stay off drugs, not slip off and steal beer and do your chores.

Q. You have often said your father was your hero. Why?

He had a great knack for problem-solving. Great common sense. He was the kind of person who was easy to pull for. You just knew he was going to figure out a way to come out on the good end of everything. People were drawn to him. They liked being around him.

Q. You have 18 wins at NASCAR's Cup level, but you have never won a Cup championship and you have struggled as a driver for the past several years. What do you think your dad would think about how your career has progressed?

I think he'd be 50-50 on the racing part. He was always kind of 50-50, even when we did really good. He would be pretty proud of some of the things me and my sister (Kelley) have done - charity work and things like that.

He and I didn't agree on how a lot of things should go down. As we got older, we seemed to let each other have their own way, not to be so critical about each little thing.

I'm not sure exactly what he would think. I'd be just as interested as everyone else would be to hear what he would say. As far as my life in general, though, I think he'd be pretty proud and surprised.

Q. Your dad was never adept at explaining to reporters the essence of what made him great. He usually made his talent sound like it was just instinctive. Why do you think he won those 76 races and seven Cup championships?

I think it had a lot to do with the way he came up.

His experience in running short tracks in those little old sportsman cars, trying to make an extra $300 or something to put food on the table that week.

If you look at pictures of him back then, he looks so rugged - it's such a contrast to how polished the racing is today.

And then, when he made it, he never really lost that drive - that willingness to be cut-throat. I don't know how he was able to do that when he got so established, but he did. He never lost that "I'm-doing-this-to-put-food-on-my-table" mentality, even when he had all the food he could ever need.

Q. What is your favorite all-time racing memory that you and your dad shared?

The 2000 all-star race I won in Charlotte when I was a rookie (at NASCAR's highest level). He was the owner of that team. It was just such a shock, I guess, to all of us that I won it. He came into Victory Lane and spent a whole lot of time with us. Normally he was very quick about getting in and getting out of Victory Lane, but he thoroughly enjoyed that one. He stayed there a really long time and soaked it up with all of us.

Q. You have turned down almost every request from the media to talk about your father. Why have you done that, and why did you choose to do this particular interview?

It's kind of difficult to talk about it. It's a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of labor. I feel like I'm pushing a lot of weight around when I talk about him - I don't know if anyone out there can understand that.

But I did this interview because under the circumstances, with his Hall of Fame induction coming up, I think it's acceptable to remember what he was about.

I want to try to refresh everybody about what he was like. If we were in the middle of some random year and there was no real reason to be doing it, I would feel like it's a little intrusive, a little cheap.

But in this case, I want to remind people of what he was like. I don't want them to ever forget that, or to forget him.

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