On the anniversary of his father's death, Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiles

·Columnist
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, shares a laugh with a crew member before a practice session on Wednesday. (AP)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, shares a laugh with a crew member before a practice session on Wednesday. (AP)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was looking at his Twitter feed on Wednesday morning, as NASCAR fans passed on condolences and remembrances on the 14th anniversary of the death of his father. The tenor, all these years later, was still one of grief.

The date of a father's death is emotional for anyone, yet it sort of compounds all around Dale Jr. When it comes he is always back here at Daytona, back at the site of the fatal crash, back where he can stare at the high-banked turn of the Speedway where the tragedy happened, back where he can hold news conferences in the same place NASCAR president Mike Helton solemnly announced, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."

How many have a job that requires you to roar, over and over, through the same spot their father died, that most haunting patch of stock car real estate?

So yes, there is no avoiding it. For Dale Jr. there is never avoiding the memory of Dale Sr.

Junior was thinking about it long before he checked his phone Wednesday morning. He just, in an instance, decided he wanted to make sure the day was seen from a different perspective than what was coming through his feed.

"[On] this day I do not mourn his death," Junior tweeted out. "I thank God he lived."

Dale Sr. raised a son under the backdrop of fame and wealth, of affluence and opportunity, but he and his ex-wife Brenda raised a son who has always come across as impossibly well-grounded, humble, easy going, likeable. The Intimidator won seven Cup Championships but this was a far greater accomplishment.

A son who wouldn't just win two Daytona 500s of his own, including last year, but one who could sample a 1945 Gen. George Patton quote about lost soldiers: "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."

A son capable of spinning a tough day on a dime by summoning a message rooted in don't-cry-for-me/cheer-for-us-ethos.

"When Dad passed away, that's kind of the way that I felt about it, like you feel kind of selfish mourning that loss because you're just like, 'What am I going to do?' or 'how am I going to go forward?' or 'how does this make me feel?' " Junior said later Wednesday. "That's real selfish. His loss affected a lot of people, not just myself.

"At the same time," he continued, "you're fortunate to have known him and fortunate to have learned and have the experiences that you had with him. So you think about those and be glad that was an opportunity you got to experience."

Junior is forever being asked about the death of his father.

By fans. By media. By everyone.

It's a dual sword of an inquiry. It's capable of eliciting equal parts exhaustion and gratification. It can be tiring discussing such a personal loss with people who can't possibly (but perhaps believe they do) share the same connection, yet uplifting that they still remember and care about someone you loved so much.

As tough as it is to hear it over and over and over, it'd be worse to never hear it again.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Junior has always handled it with remarkable grace. One of his most endearing qualities is his ability not just portraying himself as an everyman, but to truly appreciate that he shouldn't be treated differently than anyone. He isn't the first to lose a father. He isn't the even the first to have it occur in such stunning and awful fashion, with television replays bringing the moment back forever.

There have been times he's asked the media to stop bringing it up. Then there are times when he wants to discuss it, when he sees social media spinning and decides he should interject himself into the remembrance.

"I've just seen a lot of people tweeting and talking," he said of Wednesday morning, "and I just felt like pitching in and let people know where my mind was at."

He has a race here to prepare for – Sunday's Daytona 500, where he's the defending champ. It is a beginning of a quest for Sprint Cup contention, his career taking on a revival of late, after a too-long and so-frustrating drought that had him questioning everything.

He suffered through a 143-race streak, nearly four full seasons, without seeing victory lane. That he was named NASCAR's most popular driver anyway was almost a source of embarrassment; that he wasn't living up to his father's legacy, even if almost no one could.

Now, suddenly, after a 2014 that featured four victories, 12 top fives and 20 top 10s, everything kind of feels different. He was a legitimate threat last year. There is no reason to believe that changes. At 40, it feels new.

"We've got a great car," he notes.

And so Sunday matters not just because of the history, but the future.

Wednesday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. just smiled at it all. He was thankful to be here again, even on the anniversary, maybe especially on the anniversary.

He told a story of playing the Powerball last week, how like anyone else, he wanted in on a half billion-dollar prize even if he hardly needs the money.

"[Girlfriend] Amy [Reimann] got mad at me," Junior said. "She's like, 'What the hell are you buying a Powerball ticket for? You don't need to be winning it.' … She made me feel pretty bad. I don't know. Everybody else was buying them, and I want to play. I want to have fun."

Everybody laughed. The guy who has every toy imaginable, who has the fame and resources to do anything he wants, just wanted in on the humblest of long shots – a dollar and a dream. He wound up winning $12. He said if he could pick his numbers, he'd start with "3" – his father's number.

He's hardly alone in that. There are 3s everywhere around here, on flags and bumper stickers and T-shirts. This is still the place we lost Dale Earnhardt. On Wednesday, Junior just wanted it viewed in a different light.

"Instead of being sad about it," he said, "I think about all the awesome times we had and good things we did. And stuff that I think he's be proud of today."

Such as the son he raised.