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This Junior is mint
Friday, July 9, 1999 - By YURI PRIDE, Monitor staff

The inevitability of it all is a bit scary. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of a seven-time Winston Cup champion and the defending Busch Series champion, will be the next great young stock car racer. Tony Stewart may win races and, perhaps, championships. Matt Kenseth has the ability in him as well. Adam Petty could make his mark.

But Earnhardt Jr., with his name, his image, his personality and his driving ability, will be a star one day. It's a lock. Heck, he's already on the side of beer cans.

And New England racing fans, all 90,000 of them flocking to New Hampshire International Speedway for this weekend's Jiffy Lube 300, will have the enviable position of watching the birth of this star. Earnhardt Jr. will attempt to qualify for his second Winston Cup race in Loudon.

Junior, though, wants you to know him. He wants you to love him not only for putting his nose inside another driver's machine, but also for putting his nose in your faces and telling you not to drink and drive and to handle firearms responsibly.

For that reason, and that reason alone, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be something different, a breath of fresh air, the best thing to hit the Winston Cup series since pavement.

He has a head on his shoulders wise beyond his years, but not so old he can't dye his hair blond or jam with his friends' band, Bridge. And that's just what Junior may end up being - a bridge. Jeff Gordon has grown stale as the dominator of the world's most prestigious stock car division. Darrell Waltrip had swagger. Dale Earnhardt Sr. had fire. Gordon has . . . DuPont?

So now it rests on the shoulders of what some in the business have termed the Second Coming. And, having been groomed for it all his life, Earnhardt Jr. appears ready.

He is appreciative. He is honest. He is patient. But he won't get out of your way on the track. Don't be fooled: Junior drives to win.

Don't be fooled, either, that Earnhardt Jr. didn't know what he was getting into. He perhaps knew the nature of the business all too well.

"Sitting there watching my dad win championships . . . and win races, I was thinking, 'Man, I'm not going to be in a big hurry to get in the middle of all this because if we go out there and we don't win races and we don't win championships, it could be detrimental to my attitude, my personality, my confidence,' " Junior said. "I wasn't going to sit there and aggravate my dad about getting into a race car as soon as I could no matter what type of race car it was or what caliber of car it was."

So the 24-year-old worked his way up the ranks by racing Late Model cars. He said he'd finish second or third in races and challenge for championships, but "nothing extraordinary." Meanwhile, Jeff Green and Steve Park drove the Busch Series car owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc.

In 1997, Park left the ride to run Winston Cup full time, leaving the driver's seat open.

"There was never a word spoken about me being in the Busch Series," Junior said. "I just never knew I was gonna drive that car until I walked into the shop and saw my name on the door. That's how it worked out. It sounds crazy, but no one ever said, 'You've got the job.' "

By all accounts, Earnhardt Jr. had a marginally successful season, coming away from his first full-time year in the Busch Series with three poles, seven victories, 16 top-fives and 22 top-10s in 31 races. Oh yeah, he won the series championship, too.

In the offseason, it was announced that Junior would run five Winston Cup races in 1999 in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. The Jiffy Lube 300 was one of them.

This season in the Busch Series, it's been more of the same in the No. 3 AC Delco Chevrolet. Earnhardt Jr. leads the points chase and, after going the first 14 races of the season without a trip to Victory Lane, he came home with wins in his next three races. In his first Winston Cup appearance, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt finished 16th from the eighth starting spot.

But his ability to drive a race car fast only touches the surface of why Junior will be the next great one. He is real. At a press conference during a test session at NHIS in the middle of June, Earnhardt Jr. actually appeared to be affected by the flash bulbs of cameras. He looked reporters in the eye when he answered their questions. He covered his face with his hand a bit before growing more comfortable with the assembled crowd. In total, he acted like a regular Joe thrust into a media blitz he wasn't asking for.

That's not to say, though, that he isn't grateful for all the attention that's been thrown his way. He wants to read about himself. He realizes the only way to get in the paper is to do something better than anyone else. And he prefers to do it differently.

"I certainly want as many race fans as I can have," Junior said. "The thing I try to do is be real, be honest. When I answer (the media's) questions or when I listen to (the media) I try to think about it and give an honest answer, my honest opinion and not give any stock crap. That's kind of how I try to be with the race fans."

Earnhardt Jr. said he listens to how he's received by the crowd during driver introductions before races. He gauges the number of cheers versus the number of boos. He says it affects him.

"I might appeal to some; I might not appeal to others," he said. "But I think if I try to be what they want or what I think they need, I'll probably end up being the wrong person."

Still, Junior has learned through Gordon and his father and Darrell Waltrip before them that with success comes the disdain of a breed of race fans that want to see a new driver win every week.

"I think at that time, the drivers were less personal with the race fan. Race fans didn't know the personality, they just knew the guy won too much," Junior said. "Maybe now I can be more personal with the race fan. I can know their personality and they can know mine. The more you let them know, the more comfortable they become with you."

Something special is coming to NHIS this weekend, all right. Just look for the number 8.

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Blk3GM's Dale Earnhardt Site was born on July 26, 1998 and is owned and maintained by Gary Harris.  This site is a tribute to "NASCAR's Greatest Driver" and his up and coming son.  We are not affiliated with any official Team, Sponsors, Media Group or NASCAR.  This site is solely for entertainment purposes.  Information and statistic's on this site have been collected from various NASCAR related sites on the internet, from Winston Cup Scene, Newspapers, Television and our personal experience at Winston Cup and Busch Grand National races.  All statistics are believed to be accurate at the time they are updated but cannot be guaranteed.
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