Jr. moving out of Dad's shadow

By Doug Gorman

Most young men grow up wanting to be like their fathers.

I have always wanted to be like mine. My Dad (and my mother too) taught me the value of hard work, the importance of getting an education, how to live by the Golden Rule, and of course, my Dad gave me my love of sports.

As much as I always admired my father, there was no way I was going to follow in his footsteps when it came to my career path.

My father chose big business, and spent decades as an executive with General Electric before retiring in the early 1990s.

I never could get my love of newspapers out of my system and embarked on a writing, reporting and editing career as away to put bread on my table.

Some men do follow in their father's career path. We see it all the time in sports.

Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Bonds have stepped out of their father's shadows to have productive careers (although Griffy's career has taken a downward turn). Bonds is destined for the Hall of Fame, and might be the game's best player (notice how I avoided the steroid issue here?).

However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have the most to prove as he continues to build his budding race career.

Griffey Jr. and Bonds were the sons of talented baseball players, but Earnhardt Jr. was the son of an icon, a legend and simply put, in NASCAR circles, he was larger than life.

I have to admit I didn't know just how big of a shadow the elder Earnhardt cast with NASCAR fans until his tragic death at Daytona in 2001.

It was almost as if a head of state had died. The closest thing I can remember to overwhelming grief involving a celebrity was when Elvis died. If Elvis was indeed the king of rock and roll, Dale Earnhardt was the king of NASCAR.

Earnhardt's son is a talented driver in his own right. The question is, will he ever be able to escape his father's shadow and earn respect based on his own talent?

Even on Sunday after Earnhardt, Jr. won the Golden Corral 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, adding that victory to this year's Daytona 500, you could sense the young driver put his guard up in anticipation of questions about his father.

Some questions just need to be asked. Junior's Dad won more NACAR events at AMS than any other driver, and even on Sunday, Dale Jr. talked about how much his Dad loved racing at the Hampton track. He also talked about how excited he was to add his own victory at AMS.

To the young drivers' credit, he has handled all the questions about his father with class and professionalism. He is obviously proud of his family name.

Junior has now won seven times in his career and could be very close to winning a point's title.

Any thoughts that he might have been a flash in the pan or just latching on to his father's name should have been squelched long ago.

He proved his mettle on Sunday with the victory. One week earlier, Little E turned in one of the worst runs of his career in Las Vegas. His ability to bounce back and win at AMS shows why he is one of the sport's top drivers.

Let's just hope as Earnhardt Jr. continues to find success on the circuit, he will be respected for his skill on the track, not just for the name on his birth certificate.

Doug Gorman is the sports editor of the Daily. He column appears on Fridays. He can be emailed at dgorman@news-daily.com