Media Tour Stop 14: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Faces Questions About His Father's Death

The great thing about visiting Hendrick Motorsports on the media tour is reporters can get about a dozen stories worth of material in about an hour.

But with only a short time to tell you about those stories before the next stop (NASCAR's announcement about the 2011 rule changes), I only have a chance to share one of them for now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – a driver who attracts so much media interest that he can overshadow the current five-time Cup champ (Jimmie Johnson), a four-time Cup champ (Jeff Gordon) and the most respected driver in the garage (Mark Martin) – was peppered with questions Wednesday about the upcoming 10th anniversary of his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Before we get into Earnhardt Jr.'s comments on his dad, let's talk about why reporters are asking these questions in the first place.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., who some say was the greatest NASCAR driver ever, was killed on Feb. 18, 2001. So in short time, the 10-year anniversary will be upon us.

During the week leading up to the anniversary – or on the day itself – nearly every media outlet that covers NASCAR will run some sort of retrospective story about Earnhardt Sr.'s death.

The stories might be about memories of the day, what's happened in NASCAR since the sport lost the Intimidator or even about how things might have been different had he lived.

And the people with the most important insight into those stories are (in no particular order): Earnhardt Jr., Richard Childress and Teresa Earnhardt.

Earnhardt Jr. knows this, understands his role in answering the questions and repeated several times on Wednesday that he's OK with discussing the anniversary – even if it's not his preferred topic of conversation.

But though he's fine with fielding the difficult questions and isn't offended by them, he doesn't care to go too far in depth. Mainly, he said, that's because the anniversary isn't about Earnhardt Jr.; it's about his dad.

"It has nothing to do with me," he said. "It shouldn't have anything to do with me. I'm not even in the equation. It's about his life.

"I understand my connection to him and I understand that I might be able to shed some kind of light on what the day means and how it makes me feel, but it really doesn't matter. What matters is we remember him for who he was on the track and what he did for us as individuals."

Earnhardt Jr. said he doesn't wish to participate in any tributes to his father and would prefer to "stand on the sidelines" and listen to others share their stories and memories of Earnhardt Sr.

"I just don't want to in any way overshadow what my father meant to the sport and this opportunity for people to recognize him," he said. "It's a great opportunity for him to be recognized and remembered, and I want him to get everything he deserves."

That said, Earnhardt Jr. doesn't plan to watch any of the TV tributes or special documentaries that will air around the date of the anniversary. It's not that he's trying to avoid them, he added, it's just that "nothing I could watch would be new to me."

"All the details are pretty fresh" about that day, he said. "It's not like in the movies, where things are blurry. It's all pretty fresh."

So what about those details? What specifically did he remember about the aftermath of that tragic day?

Earnhardt Jr. respectfully declined to go there, saying it was "tough talking about some of the details."

"I just feel like it's personal for me," he said quietly. "There's certain depths of it that I'm not comfortable discussing and I don't want to have out in the media or on the Internet. It's not important for people to have that information. It's just something that doesn't need to be out there – I'm uncomfortable with it."

Aside from the day itself, though, Earnhardt was willing to recall how he felt at Rockingham the following week. He remembered showing up at the track "because I felt responsible to go – but I didn't want to be there."

"After (the accident), I never wanted to see another racetrack or race car again," he said. "But after about a week, I got to thinking: 'What else am I going to do? My dad gave me this opportunity; I'd be foolish not to (keep going).'"

And when he wrecked on the first lap of that Rockingham race? Earnhardt Jr. said he hardly cared, aside from being embarrassed.

With the pain of the tragedy still stinging, what did it really matter if he crashed?

"It didn't break my heart any worse than it was already broken," he said. "I couldn't feel any worse than I was feeling."

As the anniversary approaches, Earnhardt Jr. said he won't mind seeing a huge tribute to his father. He wants everyone to recognize Earnhardt Sr. in their own way, and is fine with however they want to commemorate the day (heck, Michael Waltrip wrote a book about it).

But personally, he'd rather not expose his own feelings about the situation to the whole world.

"I know how I feel in my heart," he said. "I don't feel a real need to discuss it a lot. I want to do what's right. I want to honor him, but I don't need to do it in front of a bunch of people."

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