Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2003
Credit: Craig Jones / Getty Images

"After dad died, Dale was thrown into the spotlight," says Kelley. "Everyone followed him now." Without Dale Earnhardt Sr., the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. became very important to DEI. Without that name and its identification with a racing legend, DEI would probably not exist in its present form. Now everything Junior said, everything he did, every race he didn't win, was magnified under a microscope for DEI to scrutinize.

When his father was alive, Junior says, "I always had him to fall back on. Now where do I fit in?" Suddenly, he was the go-to man. He had to make the decisions that affected his career and, more important to others, the success of DEI. But he wasn't used to making decisions for himself, says Kelley. "Dad liked handling all aspects of his own career," she says. "But Dale can't juggle things. He can handle only one thing at a time. Besides, before Dad died, he and Teresa made all of Dale's decisions – where he banked, all his insurance, etc." So Kelley convinced her brother he needed someone he could trust to guide his career, to handle the unpleasant details. Junior agreed to put her in charge of JR Motorsports ("JR" for "Junior"), where she could oversee the licensing of his products, fan requests, and, beyond that, help out with his day-to-day troubles, like accounting.

Now that his career had suddenly gotten hot, Junior let others control it. It belonged to DEI, NASCAR, and his growing legion of fans. His father's fans flocked to him as the dauphin of the Earnhardt dynasty. "It didn't bother me that I inherited his fans," Junior says, "but I like to think that not all my fans are my dad's. I earned some of them." At times, the devotion of his father's fans to him was mindless, and it frustrated him. At times, "I ran like crap," he says, "and still got all the attention."

The only thing in his career that got worse was his standing among drivers. They began to take shots at him in the press, potshots they never would have taken if Big E had still been there to watch his son's back. Junior no longer sat in the front row at the drivers' meetings. "I didn't want to sit up front anymore," he says. "I moved back to the sixth row. I'll go back and take my front seat again one day."

The biggest change by far in his career was that he no longer had the luxury of developing his career as a driver in relative anonymity. His role as the Earnhardt standard-bearer took precedence. And because his image was now even more tightly entwined with his father's, he inherited the much greater expectations people had of the driver they predicted would replace the beloved Man in Black on the track. Yet, despite all the articles in NASCAR magazines about how Junior had not lived up to those expectations, he actually had been advancing his career at a pace much like Dale Sr.'s. In fact, he won seven races in his first three seasons – exactly as many as his father had.

In early February, I went to Daytona speedway to talk to junior. He was testing cars there in preparation for the Daytona 500, the same race in which his father had been killed two years earlier. I wondered which Junior I would meet. The sensitive Junior? The macho, swaggering Junior? The counterculture Junior? Or maybe the new Junior that had begun to emerge – a more conventional, professional NASCAR driver?

It was bitter cold in Daytona, the coldest February on record. Junior was already out on the track testing a car. I heard a high-pitched whistle, like that of a jet plane, and his car came hurtling past me at more than 190 miles per hour on the high-banked oval. Just as quickly, it was gone.

After a few laps, he pulled off the track and drove to his garage. He parked the car and remained inside, silent and still, in his Budweiser racing suit and helmet with a black visor, while his crew bustled around the car making adjustments. I looked around for J.R. Rhodes and told him that I wanted to interview Junior over dinner.

"That's not possible," he said. "Junior doesn't go to dinner with writers."

"Can I talk to him on the track, then?" I asked.

"Junior doesn't talk to writers at the track."

When could I talk to Junior? The answer: in my hotel room, after testing.

Later that night, Junior appeared at my hotel room, trailed by two friends and Rhodes. He sat across from me in the cramped room while his friends took the floor and Rhodes sat behind me. Rhodes had told me not to ask Junior about his father, but when I did, Junior didn't seem to mind talking about him.

"It doesn't bother me that I'll be compared with Daddy all my life," he said. "My father taught me to be a man." His father had also taught him how important it was to "try to be someone that fans can relate to," he said. He heard the fans boo Jeff Gordon once. "I never want to get booed," he said.

For the next 40 minutes, Junior, leaning toward me, answered my questions in a soft voice, with a directness and intelligence that I had rarely encountered among celebrities. Maybe it was because he still didn't like to think of himself as famous.

He said one of the problems with his fame is that he can't be as amiable to people as he once was. He doesn't let his friends bring strangers to his house anymore. "I don't like people I don't know to see my house," he said. "I didn't used to be like that. But Daddy always told me I'd get like that one day. You gotta always be in control. If a situation gets outta hand in a bar, I say, 'Let's take off.' I have to worry about my image. I have to choose who to be myself with."

It had been reported recently that Teresa, representing DEI, had offered him a lifetime contract to race for DEI and that he had turned her down on the advice of Kelley. Instead, he signed a five-year contract. When I asked Junior about this, he said, "Things change in five years. This protects me. I don't want to tie myself to a tree. I'd lose a lot of credibility."

"That's it," a voice said from behind me. Rhodes stood up and motioned to Junior that it was time to leave. "We're going out to dinner," he said

"Mind if I tag along?" I asked.

"I told you, Junior doesn't go out to dinner with writers," said Rhodes. I looked at Junior, a pale young man in baggy hip-hop clothes. There was something sweet-natured about him, something he could never have hidden no matter how famous he'd become, how hard he'd tried to cultivate the various images thrust on him. But there was also a curious remove about him, as if he were always talking and acting in public outside of his real self. Junior looked away and followed Rhodes out of the room.

I was supposed to talk to Junior again in late March, in Mooresville, on the day he would pose for a photographer for this magazine. Before I left, I tried to reach Teresa, to see if she would talk to me while I was in town. She relayed a message that she "declined to be interviewed for an article about Junior," which was strange, since the future of DEI rests on its most famous driver. Junior had told me that she was "real private. I'm in the dark about that, too. She wants me to do publicity. I don't mind; it's part of being a race-car driver. But Teresa has her days when she doesn't mind coming out from behind the curtain." Kelley told me, "Teresa has a lot left to do, in her eyes, to fulfill Dad's legacy."

I arrived in Mooresville five weeks after Daytona. I was supposed to meet Junior at his house at 11:00 a.m., so at nine I drove out into the country to JR Motorsports, which is located next to DEI, to talk to Kelley. DEI is a huge complex of white concrete buildings with blacked-out windows, which NASCAR people call the Garage Mahal. The complex is the home of the Dale Earnhardt museum, the DEI corporate offices, and all the car- and engine-building facilities. JR Motorsports is in a much smaller building to the left of DEI.

Kelley met me in the front room. She told me she didn't want to be interviewed in her office, so we stayed in the waiting room, under posters of Junior in his racing suit, near the receptionist. She said Dale Jr.'s image was the result of "collective effort" by her, Dale, Teresa, Jade Gurss, and Rhodes.

Of the Dahm triplets, she said, "It's kinda weird that people think of my little brother as a sex symbol. That 'Playboy' thing – I don't agree with all the things he does." (Part of DEI's publicity strategy for Junior is to maximize photo ops and minimize in-depth interviews, which, because of Junior's innate honesty, can't be controlled.)

I asked her if she had convinced Junior not to sign a lifetime DEI contract. "A lifetime is a long time," she said. "Dale doesn't want to be Little E forever." I asked if she and Junior had plans for him to one day race for their own company. "I wouldn't know that," she said, then stood up and left.

At 11, I had to wait at the electronically controlled gate leading up the long driveway to Junior's house. The gate opened, and I drove up and parked in front of his garage. One part of the garage houses Junior's personal cars (a Humvee, a custom-made Camaro, and a Mini Cooper S); the other part holds a race car he's been working on with his friends.

While the camera crew was setting up and a stylist was laying out clothes for him to wear, Junior came into the garage with Rhodes. He wore an oversize red-and-white-striped rugby shirt, and he was smoking a cigarette and drinking from a can of Mountain Dew. The women from the camera crew fluttered around him. He smiled and seemed charming, not an attribute I'd found common in the Earnhardt clan.

Rhodes refused to let me interview Junior in his house. Instead, we would drive – in separate cars – a few hundred yards to DEI.

I asked Rhodes why he was limiting my access to Junior. MTV's 'Cribs' had filmed him in his house. A 'Rolling Stone' writer followed him around for days.

"That was a mistake," Rhodes told me. "Now we're limiting interviews to less than 45 minutes. He won't go on 'Leno' or 'Letterman,' either. They ask, but we turn them down."

At DEI, Junior sat behind a desk and smiled at me. "What's up, dude?" he said. I asked him if he was abandoning his previous anti-NASCAR image as a means of trying to position himself closer to his father's image.

"I'm getting more conventional all around," he said. "I used to be carefree and outspoken. That was me. Now I want to be more focused. If I don't win, I don't want people to pile it up to the fact that I'm not focused. Because I was carefree before, they assumed it didn't matter to me. Fuck! I drove hard all my life. It's not like I didn't give a shit." He paused. "Like I can't have a personality and be a winner, too? They never questioned my dad's determination. He had this old trick that he'd be this tough-ass dude no one would ever fuck with. But I was always worried about not pleasing everybody." He stopped for a moment. "That still matters to me.

"Earlier, I made a conscious effort to distance myself from Dad's image. It was kinda wearing me out, always makin' a statement, 'I'm not him.' Now it doesn't matter. I credit my father for giving me his name, and everything else. I didn't have the vision for all this – it's a headache, all this hype. It was much funner earlier in my career. No politics. No bullshit."

When we finished talking, he stood up, smiling widely, like a kid. "Hey, dude," he said, "you wanna see my cars?"

He led me into the big garage, where his crew was assembling all the different cars. He explained the difference between setting up an oval car and a road-racing car, how the suspension of an oval car is offset to the left because the car is turning only left, while a road-racing car's suspension has to be perfectly square for left and right turns.

Rhodes appeared and said it was time for the photo shoot. I told Junior that the stylist had laid out all these new old-looking jeans for him. He laughed. "Ain't that always the way," he said. "No one wants to pay their dues. They'd rather buy new clothes that look used than work them in."

I asked one more question, and then I left. Driving out of Mooresville, I wondered what his answer had meant. It was a simple question for a race-car driver: What did he fear the most? Failure? Dying in a crash, as his father, the man who had shaped his career and his psyche, had? Without hesitation, Junior – the product of a broken home, the son of a man who wrecked two homes – said: "Divorce."

Pat Jordan writes often about sports for 'The New York Times Magazine.' He is the author of 13 books, including 'A False Spring and A Nice Tuesday: A Memoir.'