By: Marty Smith ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Oct. 22, 1999) If Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his druthers, the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division title would be decided this weekend at North Carolina Speedway -- whether or not he's on top of the list....
By: Marty Smith
ROCKINGHAM, N.C., (Oct. 22, 1999) If Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his druthers, the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division title would be decided this weekend at North Carolina Speedway -- whether or not he's on top of the list. In 1998, Earnhardt Jr. cruised to the title as a rookie, but this year veteran stress has replaced youthful exuberance.
"I don't know what I was doing last year, I had no idea what was at stake," said Earnhardt Jr., who qualified the No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolet second for the Kmart 200 on Friday. "I'd love for it to be decided this weekend. It makes me so nervous all the time; it's all I think about. I guess I just don't deal with it as well as I thought I did. Last year I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't realize the impression it made on people. This year, it's all hit me at once."
Although the young star seems a bit overwhelmed, he's handling the pressure extremely well. With four races remaining, he leads the series standings in wins (six), top-5s (15) and top-10s (19) and most importantly, points. Despite that success, his points lead over rival Matt Kenseth is still relatively close at 117 points. That, coupled with his mediocre track record at Rockingham, has prompted his anxiety.
"We normally don't run very well here, so I'm happy with my lap," said Earnhardt Jr. following Friday's Bud Pole Qualifying. "I haven't been very confident at this track in the past, but this time we were right on the money. I haven't done that in the past. Hopefully this time I'll be able to stay consistent in the race.
"Still, the thought of gaining (points) on Matt doesn't sit well with me. He's so good here and we've been so bad. We just need to use our heads a little more than we have. If you're in the top-5 at the end of this race, you're usually in a position to win it."
Earnhardt Jr. put himself in position to win the spring event, surging to the Bud Pole before being collected in a wreck just 135 laps in. Following that race, he was nowhere to be found on the points chart, mired in 17th while Kenseth was just 10 points behind then-leader Randy LaJoie. This time around, he's focused on conserving tires and finishing the race. If he can do that, he'll be in the proverbial driver's seat to win his second series title in as many years.
"We're close again," he said. "(The points leader) is what you want to be, but it's gonna be a nail-biter the whole way. That takes over all your thoughts, you think about it all the time. I haven't thought about what we've been able to accomplish this season, the great finishes and all. I haven't had the time to be proud of it, but we're almost to the end of this thing. I can't wait."