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The idol and the champ

While Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s biggest race often is fleeing from fawning fans, pal Matt Kenseth quietly takes the Winston Cup title.

Published November 16, 2003

HOMESTEAD - Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in a bind. Trapped by a horde of fans in the Rockingham parking lot after the 2002 spring race, he had little chance of reaching his escape vehicle before the fall race rolled around.

Then a Mustang screeched to a stop behind him.

"Get in," Matt Kenseth said.

Earnhardt poured into the backseat behind Kenseth's wife, Katie, and off to the kind of getaway only Elvis or an Earnhardt could appreciate. On the way back to Charlotte, Kenseth pulled into a McDonald's for dinner and his path to the register was conveniently cleared when most of the patrons mobbed his passenger.

A year later, Kenseth is the Winston Cup champion but still lives in the same shadow of his friend and rival. While Kenseth's crew prepared for Happy Hour practice in peace on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a police officer kept fans out of Earnhardt's garage.

Kenseth's crew is used to the fuss-deficit. Kenseth crew chief Robbie Reiser knows a championship is not going to change that.

"You have to realize what Dale's dad did for this sport," he said. "He's a big icon and he's got a big name and Junior is just following in his footsteps. It's not something Dale Jr. made happen. It's just the way it is.

"I grew up in racing. I know what the Earnhardt name is and this doesn't bother me a bit."

But sometimes it seems to bother Junior, who said this fall at Talladega that "sometimes there is just a little too much Junior out there, and you don't want to sell the story too much."

Earnhardt Jr. enters today's final race of the Winston Cup season in third, with a chance to finish anywhere from second to sixth. After his best season on the track, he seems on the verge of matching performance to the last name.

Then the crush will only increase.

"It would always be better to be not so well-known," said Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt Jr.'s car chief, cousin and close friend. "The more people know who you are, the more picked-on you are. You should have done this; you should have done that. But you learn to deal with it."

Public attention is where the Kenseth-Earnhardt racing careers split. Otherwise, they have been entwined since each entering the Busch Series full time in 1998. Earnhardt beat Kenseth in close points races to win Busch titles in 1998 and 1999, but Kenseth won the Winston Cup rookie of the year award in 2000. Neither had finished better than eighth in three full Cup seasons before this year.

"I would really hope that he finishes second just because we've raced together a lot," Kenseth said. "It's not a jealousy thing or a rub-it-in-your face thing or anything at all like that. In the Busch Series we were so competitive all the time, but over here it's been a lot different."

Kenseth and Earnhardt were pulled in different directions when they entered the time-intensive realm of Winston Cup, and Kenseth's marriage and the death in 2001 of Earnhardt Jr.'s father encompassed even more of their lives. They found themselves close again this year, in points, on the track and in their relationship, and so have their teams.

"The first car Robbie Reiser drove (and owned) in the Busch Series was a DEI car," Eury Jr. said. "Later on he put Matt in a car. His team has always been friends with our team. They came up together and we have fun and make a lot of jokes about it."

And they're not afraid to speak plainly about their successes.

"We got the big trophy; they're fighting for second," Kenseth gasman Benjy Grubbs said. "Matt's kind of low-key. He does his talking with his foot."

With Earnhardt stating a commitment to a championship run next season, re-signing with the team owned by his stepmother and moving close to Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s Mooresville shop, Eury Jr. expects his team to regain its bragging rights on the No.17 boys in 2004.

"It's a time-frame deal," Eury Jr. said. "(Kenseth team-owner) Jack (Roush) had a lot more success with four teams and had an established program. When we first came to Cup we were a one-team deal and were kind of learning. We're probably a year behind, but we'll catch up with them."

Then Junior might as well not look for the Mustang next time.

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