1998 was Earnhardt Jr.'s year
By Shawn A. Akers
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 8, 1999)
It wasn't supposed to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s
year. Maybe a couple of wins and a top-five finish in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand
National Division standings in 1998, and then he'd be ready to challenge for the
championship in 1999.
Not only did the son of seven-time NASCAR
Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt challenge for the title this past season, he
won it in convincing fashion in his first full year on the circuit. And at times, the
driver of the No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolet almost seemed downright invincible.
While his natural driving talents came shining
through in 1998, he did have a bit of help. It's hard to go wrong with a father like
Earnhardt behind you, as well as a veteran crew chief like Tony Eury, steering you down
the right path.
"I had no idea what to expect or how to
run for a championship or how to beat the system," said Earnhardt Jr., who had only
nine previous career series starts heading into 1998. "So, everybody tried to point
me in the right direction. When I'd get out of line, they'd knock me around and send me
back on my way.
"We had to learn how to be consistent. We
had a lot of things that were good and a lot of things that were bad. But everything was
an experience that made me a little bit better person and a little bit better race car
Earnhardt Jr.'s learning curve began very
quickly, and what happened in the season-opener at Daytona is something he'll never
forget. After running over the jack during a pit stop, "Little E," as he is
affectionately known, took a tumble down the backstretch after getting tangled up with
He wound up finishing 37th in the NAPA Auto
Parts 300, and turned in a not-so-spectacular 16th-place run the following week at
Rockingham. Not exactly a roaring start for the team.
Soon after, however, the team found the
consistency it had with previous drivers Steve Park and Jeff Green. Four straight top-10
finishes, including second-place runs at Las Vegas and Bristol, brought the team to Texas
Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 300.
After starting from the 16th position,
Earnhardt Jr. kept his Chevrolet in contention throughout the afternoon, and eventually
took the lead for four laps late in the race. After giving it up again to Glenn Allen and
then Joe Nemechek, Earnhardt Jr. bided his time, then raced past Nemechek on the final lap
to record his first career series victory, by .187 seconds over Nemechek.
The win was enough to capture the attention of
even one of the most difficult people to impress -- Dale Earnhardt.
"Pretty awesome," Earnhardt said
after watching his son win in the car he owns. "Pit strategy helped us, but Dale Jr.
used his head and ran a great race all day. I couldn't be prouder. I feel as good as if it
was me winning the Daytona 500."
The victory at Texas didn't exactly prove to
be a springboard to instant success. In fact, the team managed just two more top-10
finishes in the next five races, finishing 28th or worse in three of those events.
Things turned around quickly at Dover in late
May, however. Earnhardt Jr. put the No. 3 Chevrolet in Victory Lane for the second time
with a win in the MBNA Platinum 200, sparking a string of six straight top-10 finishes,
including two more wins.
Earnhardt Jr. blew the field away at Milwaukee
on July 5, leading all but 32 of the 250 laps of the DieHard 250. Two weeks later, he was
back in the spotlight after dominating the Kenwood Home & Car Audio 300 at California,
in which he led the final 48 laps around the two-mile oval.
The victory gave Earnhardt Jr. the point lead
once again, and he would not relinquish it for the remainder of the season.
To illustrate just how dominant Earnhardt Jr.
was in July, he was also well on his way to a second straight victory, in the Lycos.Com
300 presented by Valleydale Foods at South Boston. After winning the Bud Pole, he led the
first 244 laps of the 300-lap event before being black-flagged by NASCAR for rough
driving, and he eventually wound up 13th.
The team rebounded the very next week,
however, and took the checkered flag in the Kroger 200 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Earnhardt Jr. led the final 62 laps of that race.
He put the finishing touches on a great season
with victories in the Autolite Platinum 250 at Richmond and the Carquest Auto Parts 250 at
Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., in mid-October. The final point margin
would be as close as Kenseth would come to Earnhardt Jr. in the final stages of the
With a championship behind him, Earnhardt Jr.
has carved out quite a future for himself. Not only will 24-year-old youngster be the man
to beat for next year's NASCAR Busch Series championship, but he'll also begin his NASCAR
Winston Cup Series career by running five events in that series in a car owned by his
In the year 2000, he'll take to NASCAR's
highest level full-time, with a lucrative sponsor, Budweiser, in his corner.
"It's hard to imagine how fast things
have gone for me in such a short time," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's like a dream.
But we've all worked hard to get here. We're going to enjoy this championship, and then
we're going to start working on another next year. Then we'll start thinking about Winston
Cup. It's unbelievable."
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Photo Gallery: Dale
Earnhardt Jr. visits Warners Bros.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chat Transcript
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Earnhardt Jr. is star of the show in
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
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
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
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.
enth-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
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
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.
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