Commentary

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s man cave: Wow

Updated: January 23, 2012, 3:12 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

JohnsonVictory ManagementJunior Johnson tended bar during a commercial shoot at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Silverado Saloon.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Junior Johnson is behind the bar in the Silverado Saloon, which is across the street from the U.S. Marshal Jailhouse, which is next to a hangman's gallows, which is just down the dirt street from the Livery Stable, which is across from Slim Pickens Mercantile.

The 80-year-old NASCAR Hall of Fame driver is decked from head to toe in cowboy gear as a woman dressed in dance hall attire poses with him for a picture.

"Having that picture of Junior behind the bar makes it worth building it," Dale Earnhardt Jr. says of the saloon.

Welcome to Whisky River.

Otherwise known as Earnhardt's man cave.

This miniature Old West town in the middle of Earnhardt's 200-acre estate, complete with life-size plastic horses, bears, deer and buffalo, is the scene of a commercial shoot for the Sprint All-Star Race on this rainy Saturday. Mark Martin, Paul Menard and Carl Edwards have joined Johnson for the shoot.

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. on his popularity: "That's something that is important to me, that people know me and understand me. It's kind of like looking through somebody's record collection. It shows a little about them.''

"It's a neat deal," Johnson says as he gets into character. "If you like this kind of stuff, it's fun."

NASCAR's most popular driver loves this kind of stuff, but mostly has kept Whisky River to himself for much of the past six years since it went from a concept that Earnhardt and friends drew on a piece of paper to a full-fledged town.

But as we've seen over the past 18 months, from going public with his girlfriend of almost two years at the December Sprint Cup awards banquet to allowing outsiders onto his property, he is becoming more comfortable with himself and his celebrity status.

"For the longest time I was just real nervous about privacy and people prying into my personal business," Earnhardt says later in the day, after an autograph session at the Charlotte Convention Center.

"I got more and more comfortable with that. I see it as less and less harmful for me."

Earnhardt was a bit of recluse early in his career, in part because he is naturally shy and in part because his celebrity was so big that he needed an escape to get away from the masses who regularly hound him at the track.

But the older he gets, the 37-year-old son of the late Dale Earnhardt wants fans to understand what he's all about, who he really is, that he is more than a race car driver who hasn't won a Cup race since the 2008 season.

"That's something that is important to me, that people know me and understand me," Earnhardt says. "It's kind of like looking through somebody's record collection. It shows a little about them."

Whisky Rivers speaks volumes about Earnhardt. It shows he likes to party and have a good time with friends and family in a safe environment. Next to the saloon is "The Hilton" hotel, which has three small bedrooms with bunk beds so those who have had too much fun have a place to recover.

It shows he likes nostalgia, particularly old Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns.

It shows he has a sense of humor, particularly when it comes to the life-size plastic Forrest Gump sitting on a bench at the top of a hill overlooking his mother's house.

"My sister got me that as kind of a goofy gift for a birthday present," Earnhardt says of sister Kelley, who also has a house on the property. "I didn't know what to do with it. We just kind of set him around in some places. Eventually, I built that house for my mom and I set him up on the hill staring down at her trying to drive her crazy."

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Victory Management Sprint Cup drivers and part-time cowboys Carl Edwards, Paul Menard and Mark Martin joined the fun at the Silverado Saloon.

Honestly, it is a bit jarring. No box of chocolates, though.

"We put hats on him and s--- all the time … helmets," Earnhardt says. "It's pretty fun."

"Dirty Mo Acres," the name Earnhardt gave to his estate, also tells you how much Earnhardt likes preserving parts of his history and racing history. At one end of his dirt go-kart track is an old, faded orange Unocal 76 water tower that he got from Talladega Superspeedway.

Spread throughout the woods are about 40 wrecked stock cars, some that Earnhardt drove and some that were gifts from other drivers.

The cars originally were called "yard ornaments." Now they're called markers for paths that Earnhardt roams on his Polaris Razor. You know, go to the No. 8 Budweiser car and take a right …

Earnhardt is trying to acquire an old Indy car from Penske Racing through Brad Keselowski, who lives nearby on two acres he purchased from Earnhardt.

"That would be the coolest thing to set out there in the woods," Earnhardt says.

The Old West town and land around it also speaks of Earnhardt's popularity. There are two living and breathing buffalo named "Laverne" and "Shirley" and two longhorn steers among the many gifts he has received.

The commercial shoot also speaks volumes about Earnhardt. He turned down a chance to appear in it for the second straight year because he is not guaranteed a spot in the All-Star Race, although everyone knows he will be voted in again by the fans.

"That would be a little bit arrogant," Earnhardt says. "Self-assuming, it's never a good quality."

Say what you want about the driver's talent, he is a genuinely good guy. He may be a little eccentric having an Old West town, but what's wrong with that?

Martin has his version of the man cave, only it's in an airplane hangar with a gym. Edwards, who likes his privacy so much he lives in his hometown of Columbia, Mo., instead of the Charlotte area, jokingly says he may have to build his own town one day.

You know Johnson in the day had his hideaways where he made moonshine.

Earnhardt has just taken it to another level, going from planning a 1,000-square-foot tree house that his sister discouraged because he might fall out of it to an old town that was born from seeing the one Willie Nelson built on a rerun of "60 Minutes."

"When I moved onto this property, I [had] lived across from DEI for a long, long time," Earnhardt says of Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company that his father started. "We had a basement that was on '[MTV] Cribs.' We used to party down there all the time, which was fine. It was hard to clean up, a pain in the ass, and people would wander upstairs and all that s---.

"I said, 'Man, I want to have something I can have parties at but not have to worry about feeling I'm tearing my house apart.'"

He's got that with Whisky River.

Now he's got the comfort level to share it with the world.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.

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