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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Gambling on Little E looks like a winning venture
May 28, 1999 - CONCORD, N.C. (AP)

Early indications are that the $50 million-plus gamble was worth it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took an important first step in his Winston Cup career by qualifying eighth for his inaugural race, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway at Charlotte.

Wednesday night's time trials capped more than six months of planning and hoopla surrounding the targeted series debut for the 24-year-old son of one of the sport's most famous champions.

On Thursday, the relief was evident on the faces of everyone associated with the driver known as Little E.

"It's always a gamble because you never know what's going to happen," said a smiling Ty Norris, general manager of Dale Earnhardt Inc. "But there are certain things that people like Dale Earnhardt and his experienced eyes can see, like whether a guy can do it or not.

"And Dale Jr. did not get the opportunity because of his name. He has the ability to do it."

Anheuser-Busch Inc. was banking on it. The brewer, through its Budweiser brand, committed to backing the younger Earnhardt's entry into Winston Cup racing. Industry sources said the sponsorship deal, which runs through the 2004 season, is worth more than $50 million.

The plan was for the younger Earnhardt to run five Winston Cup races this year before moving up to the circuit on a full-time basis in 2000.

But what if Earnhardt had struggled?

"We did not formulate a what-if situation because we just don't think that way," Norris said. "And I don't mean to sound cocky or anything, but we just don't program ourselves to fail. We try to get all the parts together and go out and give it our best shot."

Dale Earnhardt, the 48-year-old seven-time Winston Cup champion, decided last year that his son was capable of making the ascent from NASCAR's Busch Grand National circuit.

Historically, that transition hasn't necessarily been an easy one.

The sport's archives are full of drivers who were extremely successful in Grand National cars but struggled when they stepped up to the top series. Among current drivers alone, David Green, Steve Grissom and Joe Nemechek are former Busch series champions yet to win Winston Cup race and often struggle just to qualify.

Nonetheless, Norris said the elder Earnhardt and other officials at DEI sensed early in the younger Earnhardt's Grand National days that he was something special. The team kept outfitting him with old cars and used engines, but Earnhardt kept producing impressive finishes.

Further proof of his potential came barely 13 months ago on sunny spring afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway. Heading into the final lap Earnhardt crept up on the rear bumper of Nemechek, the leader, and put an Intimidator-like move on him, weaving quickly to create some uncertainty in Nemechek's rearview mirror.

Nemechek bobbled just momentarily, but it was enough for Earnhardt to shoot past and take the checkered flag.

Earnhardt went on to win six more times last year and take the driving title. He's in a tight battle with Matt Kenseth atop the standings one-third of the way through this season.

And now, he's adding Winston Cup racing to the mix. In addition to the added demands on his time, the transition has significantly increased the workload for his Grand National team, which also is overseeing his limited 1999 Winston Cup program.

"We haven't really thought that much about the pressure. It's just been a lot of hard work," crew chief Tony Eury said. "We've still got to concentrate on that Busch championship, but it's a relief to get in this race. You can look around here and tell that everybody's a lot happier."

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