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Like old times, unfortunately, for Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- He did not need the lesson, thank you.

He already understood the frustration. Had a pretty fair recollection of the anger and maybe the feeling of helplessness, too.

So, no, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not need to be chided by the Daytona 500.

Not when it has gotten him so many times before.

It was in another lifetime when he was a boy in dungarees watching his father forever turn circles on this track, on this week.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. never chased anything as long as the Daytona 500. Nineteen times he started and lost. Once it was an empty gas tank. Another time it was a blown tire. At times he was even outmaneuvered. Earnhardt Sr. was 46 and in his 20th start before finally winning the race.

"I remember as a kid, and as a teenager, how hard it was," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "And I mean it hurt."

This is what Junior talked about on the race's eve. How a Daytona 500 should not come easily. How it should be earned. How it somehow seemed wrong he was in position to win at age 28 and in his fifth start.

Turns out, the kid has a good feel for justice.

A week of domination at the track was undone by a mechanical glitch. The strongest car in the field was left powerless because the battery went dead. And the Daytona 500 ended with an Earnhardt in a snit.

He walked in the rain from the garage to his motor home and his mood was a pretty good match for the clouds: dark and brooding. Threatening enough to make you wonder about running for cover.

"We've got a great car, and we had a heck of a week," Earnhardt said. "Regardless of what happened, we should be real proud."

This would have been more convincing had it not been followed by a curt wave of his hand that said he would entertain no questions.

Although, he was right about one thing: It had been a heck of a week.

Earnhardt swept the early races, ticked off another team and generally made himself the center of attention in the season's opening week.

He won the Bud Shootout Feb. 8 and one of the Twin 125 qualifying races Thursday. When he took the Busch series race Saturday, there was talk about Earnhardt being the first driver to sweep the week.

It was almost as if he knew better.

"It seems to me," he said after winning Saturday, "that every time we do something good, it stacks the odds against us even worse to win the 500."

His father had always done well in the early races, too. Four times, he had swept the Bud Shootout and a qualifier. Four times he blew the 500.

For Junior, the frustration was intensified by the way his car was running with teammate, and eventual winner, Michael Waltrip. The two Chevys could have stayed at the top of the pack the entire afternoon. Between them, they led 87 of the 109 laps Sunday, giving up the front spot only for pit stops.

Junior's problem began after the first rain delay when his car would not start. Once he got going, his voltage gauge began to drop. He radioed his crew and was told to turn off fans or anything else requiring excess power.

He hung on for a short time but eventually lost power. Earnhardt steered his car into the pits and watched two laps go by while getting a new battery.

"When the 8 car dropped out, everybody's eyes lit up," Kurt Busch said. "Everybody's foot got heavy. It was a whole new race."

There is more than a little jealousy around the track with the way Junior and Waltrip -- the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars -- have mastered restrictor-plate racing. They have combined to win seven of the past nine races at Daytona and Talladega, the two superspeedways that use restrictor plates to keep cars at a more manageable speed.

When Junior lobbed criticism at drivers Jeff Green, Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon last week -- saying the Richard Childress teammates did not work well together and did not appreciate their owner's hard work -- it prompted a return volley based on his restrictor-plate success.

"I could be mean and say, 'What races besides restrictor-plate races has he won?' " Gordon said. "Can you tell me? One. He's won one race that wasn't a restrictor-plate race."

He actually has won three nonrestrictor-plate races, but the message seemed clear. Earnhardt's success has not yet caught up to his fame.

Maybe that, too, had something to do with his unhappiness Sunday. He may be a guest on MTV and the cover boy on magazines, but Earnhardt also knows he never has finished higher than eighth in the season series.

This could have been a start in the right direction. This could have been a first step in furthering his reputation around the track. This could have been his first Daytona 500.

And he knows how precious that can be.

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