Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2003
Credit: Craig Jones / Getty Images
Junior was three when his father left the family. He rarely saw him over the next three years, while his mother struggled financially. Then, in 1981, their house burned down and his single mother was no longer able to support him and Kelley. "We lost everything," Junior says. His mother handed the kids over to Dale Sr., who was living with Teresa, 24 at the time. Even then, Junior didn't get to know his father much, since Dale Sr. and Teresa traveled to races constantly, leaving the children with nannies.

"It was just the two of us," says Kelley. "It was solitary, but we had each other. I was more mature, so I did motherly things for Dale." (Kelley prefers to call her brother Dale, not Junior.) He credits Kelley with 75 percent of his upbringing. "She could always handle things, so I went to her for everything."

They lived a sort of lonely rich-kids' life that is common to urban areas but not to Mooresville, North Carolina, a small town 30 miles north of Charlotte, whose younger residents generally have more in common with Dale Sr. than with Dale Jr. Because the Earnhardts' father was so popular and rich, they were picked on by other kids, who "had this stereotype of what we were like," says Kelley. The Earnhardts went to a new school every three years and had no friends and no father who went to their games. "Dad was strict," says Kelley. "We couldn't have kids come over to spend the night. We never sat down as a family to dinner. We didn't get everything we wanted. For 15 years, we had a 13-inch black-and-white TV." The worst times, says Junior, were when their mother visited. "She'd come for a weekend, and we'd stay with her at some crummy-ass motel. When she left, she'd cry. It tore us up. I love my mother. That's why it took me a long time to have a relationship with Teresa. I didn't give her a lot of respect."

Junior himself got no respect at school, says Kelley. "Kids bullied him. He was a lot smaller than they were. He was shy and sensitive and easily intimidated. He didn't stand up for himself. I never thought he'd race cars."

Instead, Junior retreated to his room, where he played with Matchbox cars and computers while his father raced cars and hunted. It must have dawned on his father that his slight, pale son not only looked nothing like him but also had none of his fiery nature. When Junior became a teenager, his father tried to make a man of him in a way fathers often do with sons they feel are too delicate. One time, Dale Sr. gave his 12-year-old son a sex talk about rubbers and getting girls pregnant, because "that's the trap he fell into. My brother, Kerry, too," says Junior. He told his son that "pull[ing] out in time" wasn't enough protection without a rubber. "I was a little embarrassed," says Junior. "I didn't want to hear that from my daddy."

Another time, Dale Sr. took his son for a ride to teach him how to handle a car when it swerves off the road. "Here's how you do it," his father said, jerking the steering wheel, forcing the car off the pavement. "Never yank it back," he said, "just bring it back gradually." His son was screaming in fear, "All right, Daddy! I get it!" Today, Junior says, "Dad got pissed off at me. He said, 'You don't trust me? I never worried driving with my daddy.'

"I always felt that my father thought I wasn't like him," says Junior. "He was worried I didn't have what it takes to be a tough guy. He thought I was a pushover." He remembers thinking that he didn't want to be the sensitive son; he wanted to be the Intimidator. "But I didn't try to be [sensitive]," he says. "That's just me. Maybe when I get older, I'll get meaner."

"You have to understand," says Kelley, "Dad loved being Dale Earnhardt, the Man in Black, the Intimidator, and all the things that went with it: the racing, the fans." Her father, it seems, was the only member of his various families who wasn't conflicted.

By the time he was ready for high school, Junior was, in his words, "a bad kid. I lied to my parents and didn't do what I was told, so they sent me to a military school." He got kicked out and was then sent to a Christian school until he graduated and left home at 18. By then, he had befriended Kerry, and the boys lived together in a trailer, where they hung around drinking beer. Junior's first real job was as a mechanic in his father's auto dealership. It was a menial job at first – he mostly did oil changes – but he loved it. "Eating with the guys," he says, "the camaraderie, Christmas parties. Everyone was real, as opposed to famous people who don't know who their friends are. If I ever left racing, I'd go back to being a mechanic. It was a good, honest job."

Still, he got no approval from his father and realized that he'd "never forge a relationship with him if I didn't race." So he began to race late-model stock cars. Tony Eury Sr., Dale Sr.'s chief mechanic, has said, "Junior wasn't doing well, because Dale made him use his own money and get his own sponsors – just like he'd had to do." That's when Junior began to effect the first change in his personality, going out of his way to prove his manliness. He started talking about how he loved the danger of racing cars. He bragged that he drank beer only to get drunk and that he could drink a case of beer a night. And then a funny thing happened: Junior, and his father, discovered that he had a very real talent for racing.

Junior, it seems, has a race-car driver's most important physical ability: to see images at more frames per second than ordinary people do. "It didn't take long for my mind to catch up to what my eyes were seeing and then for my mind to tell my body what to do," he says. He also had the ability to maintain his composure in racing traffic. "Some guys get confused, disoriented easily," he says. "I was able to focus on what I was doing. I saw other drivers lose their composure and get frustrated, but I was good at maintaining my composure." He was also smarter than most drivers, and patient, studying his competitors' flaws lap after lap; when they were most vulnerable, he'd pass them.

By 1998, Dale Sr. was so impressed with his son's driving that he offered him a Busch Series car to race out of his DEI stable. Junior won the Busch Series Championship that year and the next, and at the start of the 2000 season, he was driving his No. 8 Budweiser car for DEI in the big leagues, the Winston Cup Series. Junior recorded his first Winston victory, at Texas Motor Speedway, in only his 12th start. Afterward, his father came over to him in the winner's circle and said, "Good job. I love you. Get the fuck out of the car."

"He didn't say he loved me often," says Junior. At the time, "he felt content with what I was doing with my life." Still, Junior says, "I had problems driving for my father. I didn't get much respect as a driver from his employees. I was the SOB, Son of the Boss." After one race, Junior got into a fight with a member of Tony Stewart's crew, who called him a daddy's boy who had everything handed to him. Junior contributed to this resentment by breaking the NASCAR protocol in the drivers' prerace meetings, at which only veteran drivers sat in the front row. In his second season, Junior began sitting in the front row beside his father. Because of Dale Sr.'s status, none of the other drivers complained openly, but the older ones resented Junior's presumptuousness. It began to dawn on Junior that the close relationship he was beginning to enjoy with his father was giving people the perception that his driving successes were more related to his father's help than to his own skill. So he began to try to distance himself, not from his father, whose affection he had coveted for years, but from his father's image, that of the typical NASCAR driver, a good old Christian boy who listened to country-and-western music, hunted, and did his shopping at Wal-Mart. He made a point of telling reporters what his favorite band was – he'd mention some obscure grunge band – and watched as they scratched their heads in ignorance. He also trashed his father's favorite pastime, hunting, telling reporters he preferred to spend his free time on his computer. During one interview, he said he hoped he wouldn't "have to go to some Wal-Mart in the middle of Texas to sign autographs for two hours." His DEI handler at the time interjected, "To all the sponsors who have taken us to Wal-Marts, we love you, too."

Junior countered, "Speak for yourself."

Since Dale Sr. was still the major moneymaker at DEI, nobody at the company (including Teresa and publicist J.R. Rhodes) cared much about Junior's attempt to stake out his own counterculture, anti-NASCAR stance. Junior's image was just his, sort of like a toy for a little boy. The Dahm triplets. MTV's 'Cribs.' Drunken parties in his basement nightclub. Talk of his sexual conquests in 'Playboy.' His penchant for dissing country music, hunting, and Wal-Mart – the NASCAR Trinity – and even his own father. If anything, Junior was just being true to himself, at least to the self he had created at the time.

Then, on February 18, 2001, his father died at Daytona.