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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Dale Jr. ready for Winston Cup debut
May 26, 1999 - News-Journal Wire Services

CONCORD, N.C. - History is about to repeat itself 24 years after a young driver named Dale Earnhardt made his Winston Cup debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is scheduled to race for the first time in NASCAR's top series at the Coca-Cola 600. First-round qualifying for Sunday's event, the longest on the circuit, is set for Wednesday night.

"We know that we've got a lot of growing to do, a lot of changes, and this is a good way to find out where we are," said the 24-year-old Earnhardt, who plans to run five Winston Cup races this year before moving to the series full time in 2000. "We're just trying to get our feet wet and see what we need."

The driver known as Little E is attracting a lot more attention than his father did in his first Winston Cup race. The elder Earnhardt was virtually unknown outside the region when he showed up on Charlotte's 1.5-mile, high-banked trioval in 1975, starting 33rd and finishing 22nd in a car owned by Ed Negre.

Earnhardt went on to win 72 races and seven Winston Cup championships, and his fame was one of the reasons his son became a star practically overnight.

The younger Earnhardt helped his cause last year by winning seven races and the driving title as a rookie on the Busch Grand National circuit. He's second in the points this year in his bid to win a second straight championship.

The abilities he's already demonstrated and his potential to be one of the sport's next superstars prompted Anheuser-Busch to sign on as his Winston Cup sponsor, committing more than $10 million a year through its Budweiser brand. And his handlers organized a "Countdown To E-Day" campaign, complete with well-attended media events and fast-selling souvenirs to celebrate his introduction.

The track, which was recently renamed Lowe's Motor Speedway, will create a whole new set of memories for someone who still vividly recalls his teen-age days in the garage area. Earnhardt remembers being 13 and 14, hanging out with the sons of other drivers, killing time and trying to stay out of trouble.

"We used to try to talk everybody into letting us wax their cars and stuff like that," he said.

His top priority this week will be to try to lock up one of the 36 starting spots available in two rounds of time trials. Because his Dale Earnhardt Inc.-owned Chevrolet is a new entry, the younger Earnhardt has no owner points and therefore is ineligible for a provisional starting spot.

Early indications, however, were that he is more than capable of making the field on speed alone. When General Motors held an open test session at Charlotte for its teams earlier this month, 26 showed up. Earnhardt had the fastest lap run by any driver in the two-day session.

He knows that not everyone at the test - including Jeff Gordon, winner of the last five Coca-Cola 600 poles - was concentrating solely on speed. Some teams focused more on their setups for the race, which starts in daylight but ends well after dusk.

Earnhardt said he still drew plenty of confidence from the test, even if some teams were holding back.

"We have a little bit left, too," he said. "We didn't even have a qualifying motor in."

That's the kind of talk that can make a father proud, even when your father's The Intimidator.

"He's a young one, but he's handling it all pretty good," the elder Earnhardt said. "He's going wide open with all the guys and the team. He's handling things as they come. I sit down and talk with him and see where his head is every once in a while."

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