"Humpy" Wheeler on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Wheeler: Dale Jr. the rival Gordon needs By Brett Borden CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Sept. 30, 1998) Charlotte Motor Speedway President and General Manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler has seen a lot of young hotshot drivers come and go during his years with...

Wheeler: Dale Jr. the rival Gordon needs By Brett Borden

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Sept. 30, 1998) Charlotte Motor Speedway President and General Manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler has seen a lot of young hotshot drivers come and go during his years with NASCAR. He says the latest, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has come along at just the right time to keep the sport healthy and strong.

"I watched him coming up through Legends racing first, and I was quite surprised at his ability to master it that quick," said Wheeler of the son of seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt. "I've got a theory that great race drivers are good fast, they're not great fast. Good race drivers that never become great -- it takes them a while to become good.

"I think Earnhardt Jr. has become good fast, and I think that there's something genetically that is handed down -- we've seen examples of that with Richard Petty, with Davey Allison, with Buddy Baker, that not always -- it might skip a generation or two -- but genes play a lot in the ability to drive a race car, and Dale Jr. seems to have picked up those genes because he's doing things on the race track right now that normally would take a couple of guys a couple of more years to master."

According to Wheeler, any comparisons between Dale Jr. and his father are not only unfair, they are inaccurate.

"He reminds me more of Ralph Earnhardt than he does Dale," Wheeler said. "Ralph was an extremely smooth race driver. He did not abuse his equipment, and did not make moves to the lead except when he smelled the money. Dale (Jr.) is getting some good advice from his dad, because his dad knows exactly what not to do when you're in the stage of the game where his son is now, because Dale did a lot of those things that you aren't supposed to do."

One of those things that Earnhardt wasn't supposed to do was win seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships. But, like a lot of things, he did it anyway.

Now Jeff Gordon looks to be on his way to challenging that number. The way Wheeler sees it, what Gordon (and NASCAR) needs is for a great rival to step up and try to stop him.

"Jeff Gordon, despite all the wins that he's had and the close races he's had, has not developed a natural adversary, like Petty did with Bobby Allison, like Pearson did with Richard Petty, like Cale did with Darrell Waltrip, on and on," Wheeler said. "I think great race drivers are more appreciated when they're contested by great rivals.

"A lot of people thought when Jeff Gordon was coming along that he and Earnhardt would have battle royals about the third year that he was in Winston Cup. That never happened. It never really even came close to happening. Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon have had some bumps and things here, but the general public does not perceive any real rivalry there."

And that, says Wheeler, is where Earnhardt Jr. and maybe one other driver fit in.

"I think that Dale Earnhardt Jr., maybe some other guys like Buckshot Jones as they move up -- I mean Buckshot looks so much like Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan at this stage of his career ... he's either going to make it or break it, and if he makes it he's going to make it big time -- I think these guys are going to come along to give Jeff Gordon that rivalry that I think his career sorely needs."

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Ernie Irvan , Richard Petty , Buddy Baker , Davey Allison