DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There's a restaurant outside North Carolina Speedway where all the racers used to go for steak and socializing whenever NASCAR was in town.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew the routine, had lived it with his famous father. But he was a reluctant participant when he began his racing career, once recruiting his publicist to skip the steak in favor of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their motel room.
Earnhardt didn't think it would be a problem until his father came through the door of their adjoining room, saw the half-eaten loaf of bread and his son watching "Batman" reruns. The Intimidator lit into him.
"As he was opening the door, he was hollering, 'Y'all got 15 minutes to get ready to go and eat,'" Earnhardt recalled, "and once he opened the door to see what we were doing, he was really upset because we weren't more professional. He thought we should do what other drivers do, and what he was doing is the best thing to do. So he thought we were kind of lazy.
"Tons of moments like that ... where we would be lazy, do something goofy, and Dad would just get so mad for us not taking things more seriously."
Those are the memories of Dale Earnhardt his son has chosen to share in the days leading up to Friday, the 10th anniversary of his father's death on the last lap of the Daytona 500. He's chosen to keep to himself the personal thoughts, feelings and heartache that accompany that violent afternoon, and the decade of difficulties it created for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Try as he might, he can't replicate the success of his father. He's stuck in the shadow. He goes by "Dale," and that's what his circle calls him, but he's just "Junior" to most people.
He can't please a rabid fan base, much of it inherited, that demands a championship.
Worst of all, he can't shake the pressure that comes from being the namesake of an icon who was polarizing in life but has become mythical in death.
It clearly weighed on him in his preseason appearances, each one a peppering of questions about his father. With a blank stare and monotone answers, he patiently sat through every session, trying to be respectful but making it so very clear he can't wait for the anniversary to pass. He seemed tired — almost absent — but insisted he's "happy inside."
But he also acknowledged that appearances no longer paint a picture of the carefree, beer-drinking rock star who was such a stark contrast to his blue-collar father.
"I'll see these videos of me from five years ago, definitely a more jubilant, cheerier guy," Earnhardt said. "I think I've become more reserved, maybe due to how I've seen me be judged or analyzed. I've sort of changed my outward approach a little bit toward everybody.
"But I'm telling you, if I can get back to the racetrack and I can win a race and run well, it'll get a whole lot easier."
And that's the true burden — the losing, the failure — that he's faced the last five years.
He has won just three races since 2005, and none the last two years. He's been to Victory Lane only once since his ballyhooed 2008 move to Hendrick Motorsports, a marriage that paired the most marketable driver in NASCAR with the winningest team.
Only Earnhardt has yet to challenge for a title, has missed the 12-driver Chase for the Championship the last two years, and takes a 93-race losing streak into Sunday's Daytona 500.
Before an accident in Wednesday's practice wrecked his pole-winning car, he was slated to start first, which raised hope that the prodigal son could end his miserable slump in the biggest race of the NASCAR season. Eyebrows were immediately raised at how the stars seemed to be lining up, with ESPN executives on the defensive after commentator Tony Kornheiser intimated on his "Pardon the Interruption" show that the fix is in by NASCAR to get Earnhardt to Victory Lane on the anniversary of his father's death.
"I can tell you for sure that ESPN doesn't agree with what he said," said Rich Feinberg, the network's vice president of motorsports.
Three-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Jarett, now an ESPN analyst, didn't try to mask his anger in defense of Earnhardt's honest qualifying effort and the work he's put forth trying to turn around his career.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in a very good race car down here. He's always run well here if you give him good equipment," Jarrett said. "He's my pick to win this race. Is it because it's the 10-year anniversary of his father's death? No. It irritates you that that perception is out there, but I can assure anyone and everyone it can't happen, to set something up."
All talk of a fix was dismissed following Earnhardt's accident, which will force him to now start at the back of the 43-car field on Sunday.
But the truth behind his strong qualifying effort goes back to Rick Hendrick, who has once again shaken up his organization to benefit Earnhardt. Just days after Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship, the team owner overhauled his driver-crew chief lineup to pair Earnhardt with Steve Letarte, who had spent the past several seasons with Jeff Gordon.
It's Earnhardt's third crew chief in three years, and Hendrick said the pressure never ceases in trying to get his driver back to Victory Lane.
"Everybody expects me or Dale to wave some magic wand and he's going to lead every lap and win every race," Hendrick said. "He's just under the microscope every minute. He and I have told each other, 'Look, the people that love you are going to love you. The people that don't? Let them blame me.'
"I'm there for him, and I can't tell you how I would handle what he's trying to handle, and that is carry on his father's name, have a business that he takes care of, make everybody happy, and the sport needs him to do well. He's getting it from everywhere. He has no safe zone."
The safe zone could be the cockpit of his No. 88 Chevrolet, the only place Earnhardt can seemingly find relief.
His mood lifted once he arrived in Daytona, and his confidence grew after leading laps in last weekend's Budweiser Shootout and winning the pole for the main event. He wants to be better, he wants to win, and he figures that's the best way to honor his father's legacy.
"The only thing that really concerns me is my performance on the racetrack. It's the only thing that affects my mood and my personality," he said. "Our performance needs to get better, and it has been very disappointing and upsetting. My concern is that we're going to fix that. That's the only thing I think about.
"The anniversary of my father's death, just regular wear and tear, responsibilities — those aren't on my mind as much as just sheer performance. Enough is enough was last year. I'm ready to get going and get to the race track and see if we can turn things around."