Earnhardt Jr. gets it done with strong run By Dan McCorriston PHOENIX (Nov. 6, 1999) Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the spotlight all year, but kept his cool and won his second straight title. It was fitting that the 'Man of Steel' graced the car...
Earnhardt Jr. gets it done with strong run By Dan McCorriston
PHOENIX (Nov. 6, 1999) Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the spotlight all year, but kept his cool and won his second straight title. It was fitting that the 'Man of Steel' graced the car hood and racing suit of Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Earnhardt showed steely nerve throughout the entirety of Saturday's race and finished with a strong second-place finish, thus clinching the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division championship for the second year in a row.
Even though it was Jeff Gordon's night to celebrate the victory, this was one of those rare occasions when the race winner was not the most compelling story. The crowd was in full support of "Little E" as he made a victory lap -- in true NASCAR fashion, in the back of a pickup truck with his entire crew, his father and team owner Dale Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury -- all the while sprinkling foamy Busch beer into the approving audience. The slow lap was a good metaphor for the long road it's been for Earnhardt Jr. to the championship this year.
"I was looking at Winston Cup Scene this morning and I was looking at the statistics," the third-generation racer said. "In the first 12 races, I had three top-5's. 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."
Earnhardt quickly got things going, though. Since those first 12 races, Earnhardt has six wins and 13 top-5's. He quickly catapulted his way back into the NASCAR Busch Series points lead and the stage was set for settling everything at Phoenix.
For an inaugural NASCAR Busch Series race, the Outback Steakhouse 200 remained surprisingly caution-free most of the day, resulting in few lead changes. Ron Hornaday -- who will take over the reigns of the No. 3 from Earnhardt Jr. next year -- led for most of the first half while Jimmy Spencer led for much of the second. Gordon overtook Spencer with 20 to go and led all the way to the finish line.
All the while, Earnhardt showed remarkable steadiness, always running up front and getting quick-fire pit stops. That consistency, coupled with Matt Kenseth's just-out-of-reach finish, led Earnhardt to the championship. But Earnhardt wasn't racing conservative in order to win the championship at Homestead next week. He raced for the win and if the championship fell to him, all the better.
"The deal with that is, I didn't want to get labeled as a points racer," said Earnhardt. "It's early in my career. Early in your career you're going to pick up labels, good or bad, and I didn't want to get labeled as a points racer, so I went out there and ran hard but we ran smart."
"We just tried to stay up towards the front. My guys got me in and out of the pits good, especially the last two weeks it's paid off a lot. I thought we were just as good as Jeff. We just needed to be in front of him, but there wasn't any way we were going to get by him. That's just the way it is."
Now Earnhardt looks to the future of his racing career in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. The pressure to win shouldn't be too great his rookie year, but soon Little E will be faced with the mounting expectation to put on a championship run in NASCAR's top series.
"I don't know if I can do what Tony Stewart has done," said Earnhardt. "We have a good team and we have a lot of common sense and things that are going to go our way, but we don't necessarily have a lot of notes and a lot of depth of knowledge on setups and tracks. I've driven four races now and I can tell where I stand and how long and how much more I need to be competitive."
"I wanted to go into the Winston Cup Series as the champion of the Busch Series for a lot of reasons. There are probably 40 other guys out there that want to be champions. We had a real good year."