MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Jan. 27, 2000) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has experienced more in his 25 years than most folks encounter in a lifetime. For that matter, he experienced more last year than most people encounter in a lifetime. After running away with...
MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Jan. 27, 2000) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has experienced more in his 25 years than most folks encounter in a lifetime. For that matter, he experienced more last year than most people encounter in a lifetime. After running away with the 1998 NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division championship in his first full season, Earnhardt Jr. was instantly thrust into the public eye. He was no longer just Dale Earnhardt's son, he was a champion, and with that came oodles of responsibility he never imagined.
Thus, for the first time in his life he had to thoroughly evaluate his actions, his comments and his habits. In other words, it was a whole new lifestyle for the once-carefree youngster.
"At times last year, it seemed to be kind of overwhelming for me," said Earnhardt Jr., who celebrated his second consecutive NASCAR Busch Series title earlier this month in Los Angeles. "That was quite a lot to have on your plate at times, being thrust out there in the spotlight. On certain occasions, things were bigger and better and happening faster than I expected, and I didn't really know how to handle it.
"Every weekend that we had off in the Busch schedule last year, we had planned a Winston Cup race on that weekend. So, that sewed up every weekend that we had and it sewed up Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday on some weekends. Then, we had the Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays filled up from time to time throughout the year. We didn't spend one day at the house during the month of March."
NASCAR 2000 should be different. This year, Jr. can concentrate his efforts solely on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and Budweiser. Last season, he had to juggle two series and two sponsors, making for quite a hectic daily routine.
"Next year I think will be a little more predictable," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'll be able to hit the lake on off-weekends and kick back and have a good time with that. It'll be a little easier to plan our programs as far as our sponsor appearances and things like that.
"Since we don't have the double-fold of sponsors like we did last year, we won't be doing 70 or 80 appearances like we did last year. Moving into the Winston Cup Series next year, I realize that my life isn't going to get less busy, but it will probably get more predictable."
One aspect of the upcoming season that is far from predictable for the No. 8 Budweiser team is the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race -- arguably the finest collaboration of young talent in series history.
"You don't know what to expect," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We've got some new teams coming in. We've got Dave Blaney; he could run away with it with his experience. Matt (Kenseth) is definitely getting with the established program with Roush Racing, which their resources are pretty much unlimited, and information and what not, and we are too. jj "The more resources you have and the more outlets of information you have, the better off you seem. There's no telling. I think it'll come down to whichever team probably gels the quickest and establishes themselves the fastest. You saw last year, Tony Stewart come together with a new team, and about halfway through the year, they looked like they'd been together for two or three years.
"The way things were working for them and the way they were qualifying and going to the race track fast for practice. That's pretty important, so it's pretty phenomenal for a team to do that in its first year and do it every week. Whoever can establish that type of consistency the soonest and the earliest in the season is probably going to be the favorite."
By all counts, Earnhardt Jr. will be a favorite to win the seven-man Raybestos Rookie of the Year contest. And, whether or not he does, his life will likely continue to be abnormally demanding. Success breeds his lifestyle. It just comes with the territory.
"I still have a lot to learn and still have a lot of straightening up to do, I guess you could put it that way," he said. "Like I said, things happened fast. Two years ago I was driving Late Model cars and racing wherever I wanted to go, and from Monday until Friday I could do whatever I wanted to do.
"A lot changed and it changed fast. I'm just trying to adjust to it and not trying to tick off too many people doing it. I think next year is going to be a real big maturing phase for me when we go to messing around with Winston Cup people.
"I think I'm smart enough to know when it's time to wear a suit and when it's time to wear jeans and a T-shirt. The biggest problem I have is trying to stay the same in my head and in my heart ... Not being what people might want me to be, but like trying to have the same values that you had two years ago, even though you're not backing up your power bill two months late and things like I was doing two years ago.
"The hardest thing for me is to realize the value of a dollar -- what a dollar is today and what is was then, and the value of friends and being able to tell who's good and who's bad and things like that. Things like that were easy to do, but aren't easy to do anymore."