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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

'Little E' has unspectacular but solid debut
By Matthew Leach - NASCAR Online
CONCORD, N.C. (May 30, 1999)

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s big debut wasn't exactly the thunderous arrival that some fans had hoped for, but then it wasn't the early exit that some observers feared.

After weeks -- months -- of hype, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s NASCAR Winston Cup Series debut was thoroughly uneventful. And that was just fine with everyone involved.

Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team did exactly what they set out to do in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Earnhardt avoided trouble on the track, the crew turned out respectable pit stops, and at the end of the night they were in 16th place, three laps down.

It wasn't exactly the thunderous arrival that some fans had hoped for, but then it wasn't the early exit that some observers feared. And perhaps most important, Dad -- who also happens to be boss -- was happy.

"He was like, 'Yeah, you did good,' and I just wanted to hear that -- to know that he was happy and satisfied with our run as a car owner and as a father," Earnhardt Jr. said of his father, seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt. "He was pretty happy."

Earnhardt Jr. qualified an auspicious 8th on Wednesday evening, then was 2nd on the chart in final practice Saturday afternoon, so his hopes were high. But he dropped back quickly in the early going and was never a factor.

He was a lap down by the 80th lap of the race, and lost another lap by the 1/3 mark of the 400-lap, 600-mile marathon. But he held steady in the top half of the field, running as high as 13th at one point and rarely further back than 21st. All the while, he was racing for position, and having a great time.

"We finally got to run up high, making some passes on some guys and racing for 15th through 20th position there for a while. That was kind of fun. It kept my confidence up in the car."

In the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division, Earnhardt Jr. has made a splash with sheer dominance. He won seven races in 1998 en route to a series championship, many of them in extremely convincing fashion. Patience hasn't been the young driver's hallmark to date.

Patience is exactly what he showed Sunday at Charlotte, though. He recognized early that he wouldn't seriously contend, and rather than trying to do more than he was able to, Earnhardt hung back.

"When we first started the race the car was just terribly loose," Earnhardt said. "I was just trying to get out of everybody's way and not make a fool of myself. We were just kind of waiting for the car to come around. It did eventually. We got to running up top there, moving around, trying to get the car comfortable wherever we wanted to run.

"I found out quickly we didn't have a competitive car, a car to be pushing the issue any. I just tried to kind of get out of the way until I could get into a comfortable place there in the field and see if my car would come around to me or if maybe I was driving the car wrong or doing something that was preventing the car from being competitive."

Making his respectable finish more impressive was that "Little E" battled some unusual challenges. He had a minor motor problem that caused him to stall in the pits, and on his first stop he couldn't find his pit stall. But on the whole, it was a successful evening.

"I'm real satisfied to come away from here with no scratches on the car and no part failures and some pretty decent pit stops," Earnhardt said. "We didn't have any failures on pit road or losing laps or anything. We didn't make any mistakes on the race track. Everything went pretty well. We didn't get in contact with anybody. It was a little intimidating at times, but our confidence continued to grow through the weekend and that was good for us."

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