BUSCH: No Doubt From Best That Junior Earned Title

No doubt from best that Junior earned title By Marty Smith NASCAR Online PHOENIX (Nov. 8, 1999) It wasn't long ago that Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran with sub-par equipment, yet he was still winning. To those individuals who feel Dale Earnhardt...

No doubt from best that Junior earned title By Marty Smith NASCAR Online

PHOENIX (Nov. 8, 1999) It wasn't long ago that Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran with sub-par equipment, yet he was still winning.

To those individuals who feel Dale Earnhardt handed his namesake the past two NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division championships on a ready-made platter, here's a hint: find a new excuse. If you don't think the kid can drive, just ask the most successful drivers in the modern era.

"I went over to Dale Earnhardt's one day," said Jeff Gordon, the three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion who held Junior off Saturday to win the Outback Steakhouse 200 at Phoenix International Raceway. "We were leaving and he said come over here and look at Junior's car. He's getting ready to go up to Watkins Glen and drive this thing. It was the Gargoyles car. I went over there and had this old beat up car sitting there. Junior is sitting there and he's telling me a little bit about the car.

"I look at Senior -- what do we call him, Dad, Big E? He gets mad when you call him Senior. I looked at him and said, 'What are you doing giving him this stuff? Put him in something good.' He had this big, long shifter and stuff on it. He went up there and drove the wheels off the thing. I think he might have led and drove in the top-5 and maybe broke or something. Right then, I knew how good a driver Junior was."

Since then, he's done nothing to change that perception. In two NASCAR Busch Series seasons, he's won two titles, 13 races and finished in the top-5 an astounding 33 times. And while the success is certainly welcome, the glamour that came along with it wore Junior down, so much so he was just ready for this year to end.

"We won the championship last year and there wasn't a lot of pressure to win it last year because we were rookies," said Junior, who was engaged in a nail-biter all year with Matt Kenseth. "If we had lost it, that was our excuse. When you win the championship, people as well as yourself, expect you to run like champions every year or the year after. So that little added pressure is there. I feel like at times during the year, I made some mistakes that cost us some points."

Junior's worst mistake of the season may have come at Dover, when he got a bit carried away while vying for position and spun Kenseth out on lap 120, ending what was a potential - and highly likely - win for one of his closest friends. In the wake of the incident, rumors surfaced that the duo was no longer on speaking terms. Regardless of the validity of that rumor, respect for one another his still intact.

"If you're going to get beat, you might as well get beat by the best," said Kenseth following Saturday's race, in which he finished 8th. "Dale Jr. is the best in the Busch Series right now. He's got the most wins the last two years and he's a two-time champion. It's the only two years he's run, so it's hard to argue with that. To finish second to him or third or wherever we end up after Homestead, I guess that's not too bad. I definitely wanted to win it, but we gave it our best shot and just came up short."

Early on in the season it appeared that Junior's rookie success in 1998 may have been a massive case of beginner's luck. He started the 1999 campaign sluggishly, posting a 14th-place run at Daytona and a 35th-place outing at Rockingham. In fact, he failed to win a race until the first event at Dover, some 15 races into the season. Last season, it took him just seven races to get to Victory Lane.

"I was looking at Winston Cup Scene this morning and I was looking at the statistics," Junior said. "In the first 12 races, I had three top-5s. I don't know why. I don't know whether I just didn't have my game plan together or didn't have my head into what I was doing. We just weren't clicking along. The first part of the year was just terrible. There wasn't nothing happening for us at all."

However, as the old adage says, when it rains it pours. Junior followed up the Dover victory dance with similar trots at South Boston and Watkins Glen in consecutive weeks, shooting him into a fierce points battle with Kenseth and Jeff Green. Throughout the season, he would go on to win at St. Louis, Michigan and Richmond. Those six wins, coupled with 10 more top-5 runs gave Earnhardt a 156-point lead over Kenseth heading into Phoenix.

Had Kenseth tallied just five more points at PIR, he'd still mathematically be in the title hunt. However, he finished 8th while Junior finished second, allowing the No. 3 ACDelco outfit to clinch the title with one race still remaining.

"These guys work hard all year and our goal is to win the championship," Kenseth said. "To get beat two years in a row by the same guy it hurts, but on the other hand we've had a good year. We've got to go to Homestead and do the best we can and still try to finish second in the points. Green and Dale Jr. are both real tough competitors to beat.

"Disappointment is disappointment I guess. I'm real proud of all these guys. (Owner/crew chief) Robbie Reiser has given me a great opportunity here. If we can hold on to second, that's nothing to sneeze at I guess. Everybody wants to be a champion."

And Junior is just that, two times over. Now, he heads to the ultra-competitive NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and having two titles in his corner is a huge boost.

"I wanted to go into that Series (Cup) as the champion of the Busch Series for a lot of reasons," Junior said. "There were probably 40 other guys out there that wanted to be champions. We had a good year. Back to back, I never thought... I ran four or five years of late model cars and won three races out of about 115 races. Maybe I'm a better driver than I give myself credit for, I don't know."

For now, Junior may be totally unaware of his talent behind the wheel, but if he ever needs reassurance all he needs to do is ask Gordon, the two-time defending champion in the highest level of racing. He'll be glad to tell you.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Jeff Green