1998 was Earnhardt Jr.'s year By Shawn A. Akers BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 8, 1999) It wasn't supposed to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s year. Maybe a couple of wins and a top-five finish in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division standings...
1998 was Earnhardt Jr.'s year By Shawn A. Akers
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 8, 1999) It wasn't supposed to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s year. Maybe a couple of wins and a top-five finish in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division standings in 1998, and then he'd be ready to challenge for the championship in 1999. Go figure. Not only did the son of seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt challenge for the title this past season, he won it in convincing fashion in his first full year on the circuit. And at times, the driver of the No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolet almost seemed downright invincible. While his natural driving talents came shining through in 1998, he did have a bit of help. It's hard to go wrong with a father like Earnhardt behind you, as well as a veteran crew chief like Tony Eury, steering you down the right path. "I had no idea what to expect or how to run for a championship or how to beat the system," said Earnhardt Jr., who had only nine previous career series starts heading into 1998. "So, everybody tried to point me in the right direction. When I'd get out of line, they'd knock me around and send me back on my way. "We had to learn how to be consistent. We had a lot of things that were good and a lot of things that were bad. But everything was an experience that made me a little bit better person and a little bit better race car driver." Earnhardt Jr.'s learning curve began very quickly, and what happened in the season-opener at Daytona is something he'll never forget. After running over the jack during a pit stop, "Little E," as he is affectionately known, took a tumble down the backstretch after getting tangled up with Dick Trickle. He wound up finishing 37th in the NAPA Auto Parts 300, and turned in a not-so-spectacular 16th-place run the following week at Rockingham. Not exactly a roaring start for the team. Soon after, however, the team found the consistency it had with previous drivers Steve Park and Jeff Green. Four straight top-10 finishes, including second-place runs at Las Vegas and Bristol, brought the team to Texas Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 300. After starting from the 16th position, Earnhardt Jr. kept his Chevrolet in contention throughout the afternoon, and eventually took the lead for four laps late in the race. After giving it up again to Glenn Allen and then Joe Nemechek, Earnhardt Jr. bided his time, then raced past Nemechek on the final lap to record his first career series victory, by .187 seconds over Nemechek. The win was enough to capture the attention of even one of the most difficult people to impress -- Dale Earnhardt. "Pretty awesome," Earnhardt said after watching his son win in the car he owns. "Pit strategy helped us, but Dale Jr. used his head and ran a great race all day. I couldn't be prouder. I feel as good as if it was me winning the Daytona 500." The victory at Texas didn't exactly prove to be a springboard to instant success. In fact, the team managed just two more top-10 finishes in the next five races, finishing 28th or worse in three of those events. Things turned around quickly at Dover in late May, however. Earnhardt Jr. put the No. 3 Chevrolet in Victory Lane for the second time with a win in the MBNA Platinum 200, sparking a string of six straight top-10 finishes, including two more wins. Earnhardt Jr. blew the field away at Milwaukee on July 5, leading all but 32 of the 250 laps of the DieHard 250. Two weeks later, he was back in the spotlight after dominating the Kenwood Home & Car Audio 300 at California, in which he led the final 48 laps around the two-mile oval. The victory gave Earnhardt Jr. the point lead once again, and he would not relinquish it for the remainder of the season. To illustrate just how dominant Earnhardt Jr. was in July, he was also well on his way to a second straight victory, in the Lycos.Com 300 presented by Valleydale Foods at South Boston. After winning the Bud Pole, he led the first 244 laps of the 300-lap event before being black-flagged by NASCAR for rough driving, and he eventually wound up 13th. The team rebounded the very next week, however, and took the checkered flag in the Kroger 200 at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Earnhardt Jr. led the final 62 laps of that race. He put the finishing touches on a great season with victories in the Autolite Platinum 250 at Richmond and the Carquest Auto Parts 250 at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., in mid-October. The final point margin would be as close as Kenseth would come to Earnhardt Jr. in the final stages of the season. With a championship behind him, Earnhardt Jr. has carved out quite a future for himself. Not only will 24-year-old youngster be the man to beat for next year's NASCAR Busch Series championship, but he'll also begin his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career by running five events in that series in a car owned by his father. In the year 2000, he'll take to NASCAR's highest level full-time, with a lucrative sponsor, Budweiser, in his corner. "It's hard to imagine how fast things have gone for me in such a short time," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's like a dream. But we've all worked hard to get here. We're going to enjoy this championship, and then we're going to start working on another next year. Then we'll start thinking about Winston Cup. It's unbelievable."
Source: NASCAR Online