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Blk3GM's NASCAR Busch Series News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's . . . Rising Star / Expectations, pressure high for racing progeny
Tuesday, May 11, 1999 - BY NATE RYAN, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

He's been proclaimed as the savior of one series and the second coming of a stock-car superstar in another. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is carrying so much weight on his shoulders, he might as well be strapping his Chevrolet Monte Carlo onto his back rather than be strapping in behind the wheel before a race.

Pressure is nothing new for the 24-year-old. By virtue of his surname, Earnhardt has been under the microscope since the first time he slid behind the wheel of a stock car.

But at the end of the month, Earnhardt will attempt to qualify for his first Winston Cup race -- the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. It's the first of five Winston Cup races that Earnhardt plans to run this year before moving up to NASCAR's premier circuit next season.

Making the leap has increased the scrutiny to a level that has caused even the normally laid-back Earnhardt to feel uncomfortable.

With his Winston Cup debut heavily promoted by his publicity team as the "Countdown to E-Day," Earnhardt was being pulled in all directions to meet sponsor and media requests. He finally pulled back on the reins last month.

"There was a lot of things being scheduled, and I wasn't finding about them till the day before," he said. "When we first announced the deal, it got kind of crazy. I don't think we were prepared for it. I didn't feel I had control."

The solution was to provide Earnhardt with at least three hassle-free days per month.

"That's worked out," he said. "Because now I'll do any damn thing they want me to do, because I know I've got three days where I can chill, hang out, get my thoughts together and catch up on paying bills for the house.

"It's taken a lot of the pressure off of me."

Since he won seven races and the Busch Series championship last season, Earnhardt has dealt with immense expectations. Many have anointed him as the Imitator of the Intimidator, the moniker bestowed on his father, the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

But it's a simplistic comparison. On the track, father and son employ the same hard-charging style. But when he slips out of his driver's suit, Earnhardt's easygoing nature is a stark contrast to his father's gruff persona.

"There's a lot of things I try to take from my dad," he said. "I like his sternness and his take-care-of-business attitude. I try to be as businesslike and hard-nosed as I can, and that's hard for me to do because I don't look like him. I'm small in stature and pretty much talk to anybody."

His friendly demeanor has made him very popular with his peers in the Busch Series, where he's already respected for his driving talent

"He's carried our series to a different level," said Elton Sawyer, a 16-year veteran of the Busch Series. "Up until him, I don't know of anyone who has had that impact in the Busch Series during the last five or 10 years. I want to ride along with him. I don't want him to leave."

Neither do the promoters of Busch races around the country. This season, Earnhardt has remained the star attraction who draws the biggest cheers during drivers' introductions.

"It's nice to know I've earned it and didn't have that handed to me," he said of his success.

Earnhardt won't be getting much help as he prepares for his Winston Cup debut. He's running in the Busch race on the day before the 600-mile event, and he'll be swamped with personal appearances and sponsorship commitments.

Earnhardt admits he won't have as much time as he needs to focus, but he's hoping to turn that into a positive. "It's maybe a good thing because if I sat around and thought about it, I'd get worried and uptight and maybe choke during qualifying," he said. "They're going to have me pretty busy. It won't be a normal race because there's a lot of people making big promotions about it. It'll be a strenuous time to get through."

After turning the fastest lap during a Winston Cup test session at Lowe's last week, Earnhardt's chances of making the field seem solid. But his sponsorship deal with Budweiser has been hailed as one of the largest in Winston Cup history -- a package worth an estimated $50 million over five years. The price of failure seems very high.

There are no provisionals to fall back on if Earnhardt can't make one of the 36-fastest laps in qualifying on the 1.5-mile oval. He desperately wants to deliver on the promise he's shown in the Busch Series.

But he's still worried about what will happen if he can't.

"I'm under pressure where I have to make the race and hopefully run good," Earnhardt said. "But what if we run poorly and get blown out of the water with this whole big promotion? I'm worried about that. Everyone else won't admit it, but I am. You think about that trying to get to sleep at night."



Earnhardt Jr. file
Age: 24
Height, weight: 6-0, 165
Hometown:
Kannapolis, N.C.

1999 statistics: Stands in first place in the points but still is seeking first victory of year . . . Has recorded three top-five and seven top-10 finishes in first 11 races . . . Has earned $306,105.

Career highlights: Won seven races last season on his way to Busch Series chamiponship . . . Set mark for single-season earnings by winning more than $1.3 million . . . First victory came at Texas Motor Speedway in his 16th career start . . . Raced Late Models in Winston Racing Series for three seasons before joining Busch Series.

Quotable: On how his life has changed in the last two years: "I can go shopping now and not have to worry about having a $200 minimum in my bank account.

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