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Going for a spin - Whirlwind life speeding faster for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week
May 26, 1999 By DAVID POOLE - The Charlotte Observer

Two years ago nobody much cared what you did or when you did it and now you're 24 years old and suddenly it seems like somebody has scheduled your whole life without giving you any say in it and you've signed this big huge contract and you expected your life to be busy, and you're willing to do everything you're supposed to do but everybody has his limits and after all you know you have a championship to defend and a whole new world to conquer but everybody thinks you can do it all without so much as the slightest stumble and the worst thing is you can't get anybody to understand that you'll do whatever is expected of you if they'll just give you a minute every now and then to shut it all off and just chill.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., is Grand Marshall of the 600 parade.

You're Dale Earnhardt Jr., and your head is spinning.

Only yesterday -- could it really have been two years ago? -- you were racing on weekends at Myrtle Beach Speedway and spending most of the rest of your time hanging out with your buddies.

The next thing you know, you've won the Grand National series championship and signed up to drive for Budweiser on the Winston Cup circuit. Suddenly, everybody has decided you're racing's future, and the future is now.

You come to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte to test, stepping around the camera crew your sponsor hired to shoot your every move. The test goes well, but when your speed turns out to be the fastest among General Motors cars, you know it will only make the expectations higher.

You hope everybody understands that the first goal is making the race, not trying to decide what to say in Victory Lane. But you doubt it.

``What if we run like crap and the big old promotion gets blown out of the water?'' you ask as you prepare to try to qualify for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. ``I am worried about that. Everybody else won't admit it, but I am. You can't help but worry about that at night when you try to go to sleep.''

And now, it's time.

H.A. ``Humpy'' Wheeler has been around so long that Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s grandfather, Ralph, helped him with tire tests when Wheeler worked with Firestone.

Wheeler, president of the Charlotte track where Earnhardt goes to work in qualifying Wednesday, says that in all of those years he has never seen anybody have more pressure on him in his Winston Cup debut than Earnhardt Jr. has this week.

``Welcome to the big leagues,'' Wheeler says. ``It's part of the problem of having your name be Earnhardt and being pretty good. People expect you to be great fast, and no race driver has ever been great fast. They've been good fast, not great fast.

``There's a lot of pressure on him, probably more, a lot more, than he needs and certainly more than he has ever had. It's going to be a test for him. It's just like winning the championship in the early '80s was a test for his dad. He wasn't ready for that. But he got through it and he kept going.''

The first signs came in late January at the annual Winston Cup preview in Winston-Salem, with Earnhardt being prodded by Steve Park to tell reporters about the new organization they had talked about forming: D.A.B.S. -- Drivers Against Busy Schedules.

Everybody had a good laugh.

Two months later, in an interview with Sports Illustrated reporter Ed Hinton, it wasn't funny any more.

``You can't eat, you can't sleep, you can't do anything without thinking about it -- and dreading that life will never be like it was,'' Earnhardt Jr. said of the crush he was under. ``A lot of advantages and rewards come with this, but you're so busy you don't have time to enjoy it. So sometimes you wonder, what good is it?''

Today, Earnhardt says that is exactly how he felt at the time. And he had been trying to get that across to the people who were lining up 60 to 70 appearances and commitments on his calendar this year in addition to the full Grand National schedule and a five-race card in Winston Cup.

``I just didn't feel like I had any time to myself,'' he says. ``I didn't feel like I had any control over my time. And I couldn't tell anybody no. You had to go and you had to do it. There was no yes or no answer to it.

``It was just that we didn't have a good mapping of the schedule. It wasn't laid out there in front of me where I could set a time and know when to be ready for whatever was happening that day. Some things were overlapping, and we just can't have that.

``You don't want to make any mistakes, especially with the things we have on the line right now. I didn't want to tick off the wrong person.''

Earnhardt could go into grocery stores and see cardboard stand-ups of himself beside displays of his sponsor's product. He could ride down the highway and see billboards trumpeting his arrival in Winston Cup. What he couldn't see, however, was any time for him to be the guy he was before the bandwagon turned into a freight train.

``Everybody was on him, NASCAR and everybody, about doing something,'' said Dale Earnhardt, his father and owner of the company that will take him into Winston Cup racing full-time in 2000. ``We have tried to slow the train down some. You can run really fast with the train and get there, but if you don't have all the freight on it it's no good.''

It never was a matter of Earnhardt Jr. not understanding that the money behind his move up didn't come with strings attached. He just wanted time to catch his breath.

``We decided we would maybe sit down and try as best we could to map out the calendar a little more ahead of schedule than we had it,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ``I went through and picked out several days -- maybe one weekend or three days a month -- to myself, where we wouldn't schedule anything.

``Now, I will go do anything they want me to do, whatever it is, whoever it's for, because I know that two weeks from now I have three days I can go hang out, lay back and chill and get my thoughts back together. I can catch up paying the bills on my house or whatever. It has just taken a lot of the pressure off and lot of worry off my mind.''

Jeff Burton won his first Winston Cup race at Texas; a year earlier, Earnhardt Jr. got his first Grand National win at the same track. He knows success brings its own challenges.

``He is being pushed pretty hard by a lot of people, by a lot of outside sources,'' Burton said of Earnhardt Jr. ``He has to focus on his racing. He can enjoy all the other stuff, but racing has to be No. 1.

``A young driver always pushes too hard. That's what they're supposed to do, they're supposed to try too hard. What's in his best interest is to slow down just a little bit and really pay attention to what he needs to do to be successful in Winston Cup. ... Winston Cup is hard.

``As long as you focus on the racing ... the pressure and all that other stuff is OK. But when you don't come to the race track thinking about how can I be better and how can we win races and all of those things, you don't need to be doing this deal. To be successful, it requires constant attention.

``You can't play golf Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday or go to the lake and do all of those things, and show up at the track on Thursday and expect to win championships. You have to have your family life, but racing has to be the focus of everything else in your life. It has to be.''

Racing has always been part of Earnhardt Jr.'s life.

He didn't get to spend as much time with his father as he might have had Dad not been the man many consider the best driver in Winston Cup history.

``When I was 10 or 15 years old, I would sit there and watch Dad race and think, `Man, he gets to do that for a living and gets paid for doing it,' '' Earnhardt Jr. says. ``You never thought about all of those things he had to do off the track. It is a job, and a lot of responsibilities come along with it.

``As time went on, I slowly started to realize some of those things. Thank God I had him to kind of take some notes off of and pay attention to.''

But Earnhardt Jr. says his dad hasn't been hovering around the fledgling Winston Cup team's efforts.

``Maybe in the back of his mind that is his plan, to let me and the guys kind of go and find out for ourselves,'' Earnhardt Jr. says. ``We're going to make mistakes. Even if he tells us how to do it, we're still going to do it the way we want to do it. He would like for us to do everything he says do, but a lot of times we don't. That's just being your own person.

``He has let me make my own decisions and learn from my mistakes. It's a lot easier to do it than to have somebody telling you.''

Back in March, when he was talking to Sports Illustrated, Earnhardt Jr. predicted this would be ``hell week'' for him and his race team. He has tempered that in the days since, but only somewhat.

``I am not trying to take back any words,'' he says. ``They were directed toward the fact that I am not going to have as much time as I had preconceived to focus on the race and think about it.

``Maybe that's a good thing, because if I really sat down and thought about it, I would probably get so worried and up-tight about it I might choke in qualifying or something. They're going to have me pretty busy. It's going to be difficult for not only me but for my public relations people. There will be times during the week when everybody's up-tight and a little cranky, and everybody is going to have to deal with that.

``We can't have anybody saying, `I can't handle it, I quit,' and walk away from it. We're all just going to have to hang in there. ... It's just going to be a stressful time we're going to have try to get through.

``It's not going to be your normal race because a lot of people are making a big promotion about it. The media are really excited about it and we are, too. We kind of appreciate it and want to milk that, the fact that it's a big deal to everybody and use that every way we can.

``But we don't want to blow it out of proportion.''

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