BUSCH: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Star of Banquet

Earnhardt Jr. is star of the show in Beverly Hills By Matthew Leach BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 8, 1999) Because they couldn't bury Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year, his competitors came to praise him. Friday night at the Regent Beverly Wilshire ...

Earnhardt Jr. is star of the show in Beverly Hills By Matthew Leach

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 8, 1999) Because they couldn't bury Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year, his competitors came to praise him. Friday night at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division held its year-end banquet, and the young champion was clearly the star. Earnhardt and the No. 3 ACDelco team received the evening's first award, it last, and plenty of others -- not to mention heaps and heaps of praise -- in between. It is clear that in just over one full season on the circuit, the third-generation NASCAR star has earned a great deal of respect from his peers. With the luxurious Beverly Wilshire and famous Beverly Hills as the backdrop, little about the evening did not involve NASCAR's newest shining star. Before dinner, master of ceremonies Dr. Jerry Punch -- sporting a stylish new goatee -- introduced Earnhardt Jr., his team owners Dale and Teresa Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury. As was the case through most of this past racing season, the spotlight rarely left the 3 team after that. Ron Hutter received the evening's first award, the Clevite Engine Builder award, for constructing the motors that helped the ACDelco Chevrolets run out front. Immediately after that, Chevrolet received the Bill France Performance Cup for winning the manufacturers' championship -- and the company presented Earnhardt Jr. with the use of a new Monte Carlo for the next year. Most Popular Driver was one award the 3 team didn't take home. But the winner of that award, Buckshot Jones, was almost speechless when he tried to congratulate Earnhardt and his associates. Fortunately the Georgia driver -- and NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver-to-be -- was more articulate in his sincere thanks to the fans who avidly support him. Earnhardt and his team, meanwhile, brought home nearly every other award -- the MCI Fast Pace, the Gatorade Front Runner, the Bud Pole Award, the 76 gasoline contingency and the Goodyear contingency. And of course that point fund check from Anheuser-Busch, which brought his season total earnings to more than $1.2 million. Probably the evening's highlight, however, came when NASCAR President Bill France called on the champion's father -- who has won a few titles himself -- to present the new king of the NASCAR Busch Series. And the elder Earnhardt was up to the task. "What can you say about a driver that is your son?" the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion asked. "I'm not just a proud owner, but a proud father too. I don't think a father could be any happier." And while Earnhardt Jr. gracefully accepted the praise from his famous father, he made sure to take advantage of the spotlight himself. Just as his driving talents have developed over the past year, so has his star quality. He spoke glowingly and sincerely of his veteran crew chief, saying "I can't begin to tell you what it means personally to finally get Tony Eury a championship." He then had his entire team stand up to receive a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd. He thanked his sponsors, fans, officials and competitors, leaving no one out and never striking a false chord. But much as father was at his best speaking of his son, the son made a moving tribute to his father that was the most memorable moment of his own speech. "Dad, as the driver for your race cars," Earnhardt Jr. said, "I want to thank you for putting together a championship race team. You know what it's like to be a championship owner, and as a son I want to thank you for being a championship father. "It's tough to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. ...Wins and championships is all our family's known. I'm proud of the history you've made and the greatness you've achieved. I hope that I've earned respect in the year 1998." The banquet wasn't just a love fest between father and son, however. Lots of other folks got in on the act as well. Tenth-place Hermie Sadler, who finished in the top-10 in points for the third time in five seasons, had little to say about the champion, but that's because he had so much to mention himself. The series veteran is leaving Diamond Ridge Motorsports to go to Parker Racing's MGM Brakes Chevrolet. Ninth-place Jones, meanwhile thanked nearly everyone in his organization, from his team owner and father Billy Jones all the way down to the people who drive his hauler and work his souvenir stand. Eighth-place Elliott Sadler was his usual wise-cracking self, while Tim Fedewa, who came in seventh, earnestly looked back at his time with BACE Motorsports and ahead to his future with Cicci-Welliver Racing. Fedewa, however, gave a very revealing hint as to the fondness the competitors have for their newly crowned king when he said of the ACDelco team, "(I'm) proud of you guys." Phil Parsons, who equaled a career-best with his sixth-place final showing, spoke of his new twins which arrived this year, as well as his last-minute deal with Dura-Lube. He also wondered whether it would take "a Y2K thing or El Nino" to stop the Earnhardt express. One by one, the remainder of the competitors spoke of the seasons they had enjoyed, the futures they awaited -- and the whipping they had taken by the 24-year-old Earnhardt. Randy LaJoie, who won the circuit's last two titles, said the No. 3 team "brought the level up to almost perfection." Mike McLaughlin, who finished a career-best third, said succinctly, "Dale Jr., you're the man." And the champ's top rival, second-place Matt Kenseth? Despite posting probably an even more surprising campaign than Earnhardt, Kenseth still could only marvel at his competition. "You're an awesome race car driver and a good friend," Kenseth said. And with that statement, Kenseth seemed to sum up what all the drivers thought about the man who will wear the crown for the next year.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Buckshot Jones , Mike McLaughlin , Hermie Sadler , Phil Parsons , Elliott Sadler