NEW YORK — Princes, dukes and barons do their fair share of shopping at Barneys, but on Wednesday afternoon royalty of a different sort graced the store — racetrack royalty. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 27-year-old NASCAR champ from North Carolina, was in town, fulfilling his duties as Drakkar Noir’s sexy new icon and promoting a book about his recent experiences on the track. And he certainly has a lot to report. Earnhardt has taken the racing world by storm, cannonballing along to victory at Florida’s Daytona International speedway last summer, less than five months after his legendary father, Dale Earnhardt, died in a crash on that very same track.

The younger Earnhardt, called Junior by friends and fans, plays to a bad-boy image. But he’s actually as polite as any latter-day Ashley Wilkes, and makes liberal use of the word ma’am. During speed weeks in February, when the drivers gather in Daytona to kick off the season, he’ll sign between 300 and 1000 autographs a day. “That’s the lifeblood of NASCAR, the fans’ ability to have access to the drivers,” he says in a deep drawl. “They can literally get an autograph right before I climb in to my car. It’s like going into the locker room just before a game.”

And the track world’s fickle fans are head-over-heels for the handsome driver who has earned a reputation for daring feats at 200 m.p.h., just like his dad. “You can’t hear the fans when you’re driving, due to the engine noise and whatnot, but you can always tell what their mood is. If you have a couple of feet between you and the next guy, you can look up into the grandstand and see whether they’re just chilling or they’re like, ‘RAHHHHHH,” he says, throwing his arms into the air and rasping out a stadium cheer.

Of course, during most of the 36 races of the 42-week season, Earnhardt keeps his eyes on the road. And the focus that requires is intense. The longer tracks, like Daytona, require 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours of concentration, with pit stops that are only 15 seconds long. “Physically, the short tracks wear you down so much to where you almost feel like you can’t compete any further,” he says. “During the race your adrenaline is pumping and you aren’t quite aware of how tired you are until the race is over and you can barely climb out of the car.”

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Winning might make it all seem worthwhile, but in the world of racing, even taking first place has its flip side. “When you do win you gain all the admiration and respect of the other drivers,” says Earnhardt. “It’s a real macho thing. You walk around and feel like you were the best on that day. But the funny thing is after the joy and celebration, the next week you go to another track and it’s over with. You’re not number one any more, and you might have the worst weekend in your career.”

To counter all of racing’s intensity, Earnhardt chooses one of his 15 Chevrolets to drive during his time off and takes it easy. “I guess I get my fill on the racetrack,” he says. “We live such a fast-paced life it’s nice when you’re on the road to just slow down the pace.”

That doesn’t mean that Earnhardt’s friends are allowed to drive him around, and the sentiment goes doubly for women. Though Junior doesn’t have a girlfriend now, when he does she’ll ride in the passenger’s seat — except after a trip to the drive-through. “Then I’d be like, ‘Here, you drive, I’m eating tacos,”‘ he says. “Don’t hit any bumps.”

Only time will tell if the ladies of New York will find such old-fashioned notions charming. Earnhardt, who currently lives in a house on fours acres in Mooresville, North Carolina, hopes to spend a lot more time in the city. “I’ve actually been looking to get a place here,” he says, “just to be able to go from one extreme to the other and be able to appreciate both.” He also wouldn’t mind trying his hand at writing music reviews or even becoming an actor.

But if Earnhardt moves to Manhattan, you won’t find him behind the wheel. “Driving in New York is kind of intimidating, even more so than the racetrack sometimes,” he says. “I always feel like if I’m driving I’m safe, but somehow I feel even safer in a cab.”

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