Earnhardt Jr. -- Here comes the son By Dave Rodman
LOS ANGELES (Jan. 7, 2000) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only competed in the series two full years, but he won his second championship in 1999 and will be honored for the second straight year.
Two years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just the latest big-name son to come into the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division trying to make a name for himself. Heading into NASCAR 2000, "Little E" carries two NBS championships that firmly cement his place in NASCAR lore.
The soft-spoken 25-year-old son of seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt marched to a different drummer in 1999 - literally, given his propensity to jam with local rock group Bridge back home in North Carolina - and played Pied Piper to a competitive NASCAR Busch Series field for the second straight year.
Earnhardt Jr. was only the fourth driver in series history to win back to back championships, following Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87) and Randy LaJoie (1996-97). In winning his second consecutive crown, he posted six victories, three Bud Poles and had 18 top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes in 32 starts.
While Earnhardt Jr. in many respects dominated the NBS in 1998, scoring seven victories, the 1999 campaign really fixed his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team led by crew chief Tony Eury as a NASCAR Busch Series phenomenon.
"The second one is just a little different in character from the first one," Earnhardt Jr. said in comparing the championships. "The first was a breakout season for us in our rookie year in the series, where no one expected us to win it and it was a big surprise to us and everyone else.
"This year was more of a statement - of winning the championship again and proving to everyone that we were a championship team."
Unlike a championship contender, Earnhardt Jr. dug himself into a hole to start the season. The start to the season was very un-Earnhardt-like. He only finished 14th in the season opening NAPA Auto Parts 300 and followed that up with an accident-induced 35th place finish in the ALLTEL 200. After falling well out of the top-10 in points, a sixth place in the Sam's Town 300 moved him back up to seventh in the point standings.
That was not what earned him the championship, but it got him started on the road to fulfilling his dream, and Earnhardt Jr. recognized that.
"The opportunity to drive this car was a big surprise to me - I never thought I'd get the opportunity," Earnhardt said of the No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolet owned by his father and stepmother, which he entered in 1998 after showing very little sign of the depth of the ability that would blossom in time. "I dreamed about it and relished the thought that it might come one day.
"To finally have gotten in the car and being successful and to run good and win championships is more of a bonus -- more of a dream come true, I guess. I never had any idea I would be a champion or even have any thought that we'd be able to accomplish all these things."
But Earnhardt Jr., with his cousin Tony Eury Jr. as his car chief and long-time Earnhardt associate Eury as the team's guru, had a goal and a focus for this season. After five straight top-11 finishes, ending with a second in the Moore's Snacks 250 on April 10 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Earnhardt was second in points. He would never fall any lower than that all season.
"Little E" took the point lead for the first time in the season in the ninth race, the Touchstone Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway. But the next stretch of races brought two-year Earnhardt nemesis Matt Kenseth to the fore. Matching Earnhardt Jr. finish for finish, Kenseth vaulted himself into the series point lead three races later. The stage was set for the rest of the year as the two friends continued as bitter foes on the race track.
But the difference they were able to draw made the continuing clash special for both.
"It was pretty tough," Earnhardt Jr. said of the stretch run with his buddy, "because we were so competitive on the track. With him being in the points battle throughout the last two years and being at the front of the pack most of the time - and me myself running up front most of the time as well and having to battle it out on the track and then getting off the track and trying to understand some of the things that happened - it was tough."
Earnhardt Jr. didn't win for the first time until Dover in June, the 15th race of the season. He also snatched the point lead from Kenseth when his nemesis crashed twice and ended up 32nd. Dover opened up a three-race winning streak for Little E -- but still Kenseth wasn't shaken. The Wisconsin native took the lead back after the 20th race of the year, the NAPA AutoCare 250 in which Earnhardt was taken out late in the race by a charging Todd Bodine.
That led to Earnhardt making some crass comments that he regretted and later apologized for. But his zeal wasn't blunted in the least and the very next race, he won the Carquest Auto Parts 250 and zoomed into the lead that he would never relinquish. But that didn't mean he wouldn't sweat -- a bunch!
"It was quite difficult at times," Earnhardt Jr. said of the stretch run. "There were weeks were I just felt like that we were not advancing or putting ourselves in position to win or I was feeling less confident about the chances of winning the title again."
He needn't have worried. In the last 12 races, he scored three victories and three second places to close the season. It was truly the mark of a championship team -- and driver -- as his pursuers floundered in his wake.
"The last three weeks were a total surprise to me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I never expected Matt to have engine trouble in Memphis and never expected him to have an eighth place finish at Phoenix or crash out on the first lap in Homestead.
"I figured -- I thought that coming down to the stretch that Matt was going to be on top of his game and running in the top-3 every week. It was just misfortune that took him out; it's nothing that the team could have avoided or anything like that.
"But I was still pretty happy to have that consistency at the end of the year and to look at the statistics and see those top-5 finishes tagged on at the end of the year. So, I felt pretty good about it and knowing that even though if Matt had won every race and led every lap we would have still won the championship with hands down. Regardless what anybody else had done, we put up the best fight we could.
"It was kind of a surprise, but up until that point I was sweating bullets."
Those bullets about became a river when the series rolled into Dover, Del., for the second time. For the second time Kenseth had a strong car in fact he won the Bud Pole and was dominating the race. But Earnhardt made a mistake and walled them both. An opportunity to make a big gain in the championship was lost, but to the two youngsters' credit, their mutual affinity was not.
"This season was so tough," Earnhardt said again. "Especially for him at Dover - when I got together with him and took us both out of a race that he probably would have won. It was a big letdown for him as far as me being a good friend to him. That's the type of thing that doesn't normally happen. I just lost control of my race car and he was a good enough guy to say 'that's all right and we'll let it go and I understand.'
"You're gonna have that all the time with all different drivers and the ones that you can be friends with throughout are the ones that are closest to you."
For sure Earnhardt Jr. will have plenty of opportunity to test that relationship in NASCAR 2000 as he and Kenseth chase the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series as part of what is anticipated to be the strongest rookie class in NASCAR history.
But as he leaves the series in which he only made 72 starts he has a number of pleasant memories.
"I don't know," he said in typical foot shuffling style. "There are some good things that happened this year. Last year winning the first race was really cool. That will always be in the top of the list. Beating Jeff Gordon at Michigan was cool. It was kind of a big confidence builder and it gave me a lot of focus on my future."
But a come-from-behind victory over a seemingly unbeatable adversary on a strange venue, the Watkins Glen International road course, might take the cake for Little E.
"Winning the road course race at Watkins Glen International was a personal feat of mine, a personal accomplishment that I'll always be proud of," he said of June's Lysol 200 triumph, in which he passed road course ace Ron Fellows late in the race when the Canadian's car developed a misfire. "It was one of those races were we ran well there last year and almost had a second place finish there last year. I just felt like that I improved and had gotten better.
"It's rare that we run road courses. In the Busch Series we have that opportunity only once a year. So, to have improved and became what I felt like was a better road course racer in that little bit of experience and being able to beat a guy like Ron Fellows was a big deal."
It could easily be said that that was Earnhardt Jr.'s total experience in the series.
"I just really enjoyed the Series," he said. "I was totally surprised and it was so much more than I expected: The people and the officials, the people with NASCAR and all the crews and the callers and the drivers. I just never expected everybody to be so close and be such a family atmosphere on that side of the fence."
He's not reconsidering his next career step, but he didn't say he wasn't wistful about it, either.
"I would like to say, I kind of feel like it was a short-lived stay, but I would like to get back involved with the series in one way or another eventually one day and make ends sooner than I think," Earnhardt Jr. said, looking ahead beyond his immediate destiny in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. "It's been a good two years for me and I have grown up a lot and learned a lot. I can really credit that to the Busch Series.
"It's been a lot of fun. For many years I've been looking forward to have a chance to race in the Busch Series. I tell you, it came along just at the right time with the series blossoming as it did in the past couple of years, and the exposure that it has gotten in the past two or three years. For me to have that type of success right at that time was perfect. It got us a lot of exposure and although we're moving on to the Winston Cup Series in the year 2000, my fondest memories will be these last two years and I will dearly miss it."
As "The Skipper" might've said, "The feeling is mutual, little buddy."