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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Hype is Heavy: Hoopla surrounding Earnhardt Jr. has sapped him of some effervescence
May 26, 1999 - By Mike Mulhern JOURNAL REPORTER

In the hype-filled world of NASCAR, the ''countdown to E-day'' promotion has been one of the bigger promotions in recent years. Now it's up to Dale Earnhardt Jr., the ''E,'' to produce.

The show will open here tonight.

Earnhardt Jr., the 24-year-old son of a stock-car racing legend, would probably just as soon get it all over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.

But when you're an Earnhardt and it's Charlotte, well, his father knows how much pressure there is when the Coca-Cola 600 rolls around.

So Earnhardt Jr.'s Winston Cup debut, the first of his five big-league races this season, will be eagerly followed from the opening bell, tonight's first qualifying session for Sunday evening's race.

Dale Jr. calls it ''one of the most important days in my life. And it's pretty special to Dad, I'm sure.'' And he says he's enjoying the excitement, though it doesn't really tell in his monotone voice. He seems almost afraid of failure . . . which has at times been a problem even for his dad at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Junior has been off his game on the Busch tour this season, compared to last year's seven-win championship season. But few drivers have had their lives suddenly so ''managed'' as Earnhardt, a third generation-driver.

Last season Junior seemed almost giddy at times, riding his wave. This season he seems much quieter, even worried at times. The hype is that Junior may be the second coming of one of the most feared racers the sport has seen. Kyle Petty could give him a few tips on how to deal with disappointment if it doesn't quite turn out that way. Each generation has its own battles to fight.

''I think everybody probably has that (a worry about failure) in the back of their mind when they're getting ready to do something that is of such importance,'' Junior said. ''If you don't have that small worry about fear of failure in the back of your mind, something would be wrong with you. I'm sure every time you write a story, there's that doubt in the back of your mind, too.

''Most of the time I try not to focus on that too much. There are all kinds of possibilities, all kinds of opportunities ahead. If for some reason things don't turn out like we hope this weekend, I'm sure we can get that turned around real quickly. Those are just some learning pains we'll have to go through, and prepare for the full season next year, to find out if we've got a large margin to gain or a small one.''

Elliott Sadler AND Kenny Irwin, who both have a year or two head-start on Junior, can certainly attest that the jump up from Busch racing is a little more than might be expected.

''Hopefully it's not too big an adjustment,'' Junior said. ''I've raced against some of the Cup guys in the Busch series. What I found most surprising was how calm they are, and how careful they are, really taking a lot of care of their equipment.

''Never really race anybody real hard unless it means something late in the race. A lot of give and take. I expect that's what I'll see this weekend.

''When I was a kid of 13 or 14, I'd run around the garage all the time, and most of the guys know me and have seen me around before. So, I don't think I'll have as big a wall to climb to get accepted as most; especially with some of the success we've had in the Busch series, hopefully those guys will be a lot more comfortable racing with me, knowing I have a little common sense about me.''

Having his father around has helped him, he said.

''Knowing this is as important to him as it is to me really makes it a lot easier to handle all the pressure and the hype and the buildup to it,'' Junior said. ''Dad has always been real special in my life, and a big, big, big part of it. So, it's very comforting to know he'll be a part of it on one of the most important days of my life.''

While much has been written and said about the relationship between Dale Sr. and Jr., what about his mother, Brenda Jackson, his father's first wife? She may not be here this weekend, Junior said.

''She follows it pretty good,'' Junior said of his mother, who lives in Norfolk. ''She tries to get to most events. But it's difficult for her to get off work sometimes. She wanted to get to Richmond (two weeks ago), but she couldn't, and she was pretty upset about that. I'm sure she'll take every opportunity she can to get to the races, though I'm not sure exactly if she's coming this weekend or not.''

JUNIOR CONCEDES THAT his father is sometimes hard-headed about his racing.

''I don't think you'll ever get to a point where your dad tells you you're right,'' Junior said. ''As long as you live, you'll always think you know more than he does. And he's always going to tell you you don't. I don't think you ever grow out of that.

''But that's cool. He's done a lot of things, and so much for the sport, and he's in a position now where I'd be a fool to think I know more than he does.

''And if there is one person out there whose respect I want to earn, it's his.''

Creating his own identity, separate from his father's, has been something of a goal for Junior. And the two are quite different.

''If you're successful it's possible to have your own identity,'' Junior said. ''But if you're not, it's very difficult. You just go on about everything one day at a time, race and do the best you can, and creating your own identity is something that will take care of itself. It's not something you can really do or focus on. It just happens.

''I'll always be an Earnhardt. But I sure want people to know that, as much as I love my dad, we have differences.

''Like, we don't like the same kind of music, and there are other things, too.''

The music?

''Nirvana, Pearl Jam, alternative rock, and Elvis Presley. Seventies rock 'n' roll, soul music, disco, rap. Dad, he just listens to country. I need to be a little more spread out than that.''

And unlike Earnhardt Sr., who dislikes interviews, Junior saids he's trying to be media-friendly, even though that is increasingly difficult for most drivers.

''I enjoy doing interviews,'' Junior said. ''I have a lot of respect for the media, and I spend a lot of time with NASCAR looking at some of the areas where we're not getting the coverage we need. So I try to make myself as accessible as I can, and help promote the Busch series. We want to reach out to all the venues we can, to keep the sport growing.

''And there will be a time when I'll have to retire from driving, and I'll have to find something else to do. I don't think I've got the voice to be a commentator, but maybe somewhere I can be involved in something. I've got a lot of ideas of things I can do once I'm done driving race cars.''

EARNHARDT COMES in here a bit down after last weekend's disappointment at Nazareth, the Busch tour's last stop. He got caught up in a private battle with Todd Bodine that wound up ruining his chances for victory.

''I hope it's worked out,'' Junior said. ''I don't have time to get in any feud with any race-car driver. Won't win a championship banging off each other every weekend. I hope he's over his part of it. I'm over my part. But then that stuff really doesn't bother me that much.

''You're upset with it when it happens. But it's all water under the bridge now. We didn't come out on the good end of it any more than he did. You're going to have some disagreements, and some disagreements are bigger than others, and we just ran into a big one last weekend.

''We were in position to win, and somehow got out of it, and finished second. Traded paint a little bit. Knocked a few fenders off. Ended up behind Matt (Kenseth).

''We've been looking for that consistency to come, and hopefully it's starting. We've had some trouble the last couple of weeks, getting in some wrecks, things like that.

''We're solving some of the problems we've had on pit stops. So this week we've hired a new rear-tire changer.''

There may be more to it than just the mechanics, Junior said. Focus and intensity are so important.

''We may have misfocused on a few events, or maybe just not been as prepared as we were last year,'' he said. ''You only have so much time to devote to something, and when we try to split it up to two things, maybe we've hurried up on setting up the Busch car so we'd have time for the Cup car.

''But Tony Eury and Tony Jr. are pretty smart and they're not going to let this go on.''

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