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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Little E Knows Next Step Is Big One

May 12, 1999
By MIKE HARRIS, AP Motorsports Writer
Dale Earnhardt Jr. should be excused if he's nervous. After all, his jump to NASCAR's top series is the biggest step of his young career. Like many 24-year-olds, he's been known to party with friends and act a little crazy at times. But the third-generation stock car driver says he's ready for all the responsibilities of Winston Cup racing.

``I know I have a lot of people watching me and wondering if I'm going to make it or flop,'' he said, a serious expression clouding his open, friendly face. ``Some people want me to be a big star because they pull for my dad and want me to be like him.

``Some people want me to fail because my dad's had so much success. But, I'm Dale Earnhardt Jr. I'm not my dad, and I have to be who I am.''

His Winston Cup debut is scheduled for May 30 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600, followed by four other races on the tour this year.

The week of events leading up to the race in Concord, N.C., not far from Earnhardt's Kannapolis home, will be full of pressure. He says his biggest fear is letting people down.

``It's going to be like a seven-day road trip for a basketball team,'' he said. ``There's a lot that goes on at Charlotte, a lot of distractions before the race. I can't let that stuff get in the way of my job.''

Because his Winston Cup team is new - the first time he ran in its Chevrolet was in testing earlier this month - it has no series points to fall back on. To make the field, Earnhardt must qualify among the top 36.

``I have to go there and make the race,'' he said. ``I'm still worried about that. Nobody else will admit it, but I've had a couple of nightmares about not making it and letting people down - my team, my sponsors, my family.''

Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., isn't concerned about any of that.

``I'd be worried about any athlete who didn't have a little trepidation,'' Hawk said. ``A lot of people have bet a lot of money on the kid. But I've told him in private not to worry about it.''

Earnhardt, the younger of Dale Sr.'s two racing sons, was virtually unknown in the sport until he ran his first NASCAR Busch Series event in 1996, driving for stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.

His racing background was in late model stocks on short tracks near his home. Without much input from his father, Dale Jr. won some races. He continued his education with eight Busch starts in 1997.

Then his father surprised many by hiring his inexperienced son last year as the Busch driver for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

What followed was something few expected: Dale Earnhardt Jr. blossomed into a star, winning seven races and the Busch Series championship. He then signed a contact with Budweiser for a reported $10 million - unheard of for an unproven talent still to make his first Winston Cup race.

``He surprised a lot of people, including me,'' his father said. ``We knew he could drive a race car, but until you start winning on the racetrack and see how you react to the daily pressure, it's hard to know what you've got inside you.''

Apparently, the kid has some of the steel that has helped his father win 72 races and seven Winston Cup championships.

Dale Jr., known as Little E, the Imitator - a takeoff on his father's The Intimidator - or simply Junior, hasn't won this year, but he has run well enough to lead in the points standings again after the first 11 races.

Before this year, Earnhardt faced a decision similar to the one made by many college basketball stars who stay in school or jump to the NBA. He chose to stay in the Busch Series for one more year, while exploring Winston Cup racing with five projected starts.

Meanwhile, things have already changed considerably for the driver who still lives in a mobile home on his father's property.

``The biggest difference is I can go shop anytime I want, and I don't have to keep a $200 balance in my checking account anymore,'' he said. ``Change is difficult for anybody, especially when it happens in such a short time.''

Earnhardt admits his pre-NASCAR life wasn't that of a budding role model.

``I was just doing a lot of partying, a lot of drinking and messing around with my friends,'' he said. ``Now, I'm going in the right direction and the things I've got I've earned instead of having them handed to me.''

That's good training, because nobody will hand him anything on the track - not even Dad.

Dale Earnhardt Home

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