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Big E's advice to Little E may result in ultimate W

Dale Earnhardt Sr. helped his son get through a rough Winston Cup slump. Now Junior is poised to win Daytona.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- Appearances tell only so much about Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The blue jeans. The wiry goatee. The ever-present baseball hat. The white T-shirt with an E screen-printed in black ink on the chest.

So cool. So hip.

But probe further, allow the introspective 26-year-old to talk about more than just racing, and you'll find that bubbling inside him last Winston Cup season was a disenchantment only a father could reach out and fix.

"Last year," Dale Earnhardt said, "was a tough time for him."

It was too much of everything -- success, fame, fortune -- and too soon for the son of the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

Earnhardt Jr. won consecutive Busch Grand National championships before jumping to Winston Cup full time in 2000. In the first 13 points races, he won more times (two) than many veterans have in their careers.

"We were all gung-ho and happy and ready for the next week when we were winning," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We just kind of let it get to our heads."

After his victory in The Winston in May -- he won points races at Texas in April and Richmond in May -- a series of disappointments followed in the season's second half.

There was a 40th-place finish at Watkins Glen, 31st at Michigan, 31st at New Hampshire, 36th at Martinsville and 34th at Rockingham and eight races in which he qualified 20th or worse.

"When we couldn't repeat that success like we wanted to, we never really pointed fingers at each other, but we did let each other know we weren't happy," said Earnhardt Jr., who finished 16th in the standings. "Me and (crew chief Tony Eury), we'd get into cussing matches on the radio and forget who was listening. The rest of the team was like, 'Man, what's going on.' But it's like, 'Ahh, we're just cousins. We always fought.' But we can't do that anymore. Me and him both have had to grow up a little bit."

What perturbed crew members more than the poor finishes was Earnhardt Jr.'s attitude about the performances.

"I could go home after a bad finish, even if it was my fault, and throw down some chips and salsa and watch TV just like I did the day before, no problem," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Some people in the series, and even on my team, aren't like that."

The slump bothered him more than he showed.

Never in his brief NASCAR career had Earnhardt Jr. been exposed to so much scrutiny and pressure, so many appearances and interviews, so many weeks away from home.

Doubts arose whether he could finish the 34-race season.

That's when his dad stepped in and provided the perspective from someone who has experienced the same emotions throughout a 22-year Winston Cup career.

"He wanted to win and felt like he could win a lot," Earnhardt Sr. said. "In the Busch series, he could rebound from a bad week and come back the next week and be competitive.

"That wasn't happening. I think it was an adjustment not just for him, but for the whole race team."

He kept his son going by relating stories about how difficult some of his past seasons were to push through.

"We had a lot of father-son talks, a lot of talks," Earnhardt Sr. said. "I think that's what got him through it. It was a big hurdle. It was a big learning curve."

All seems better now.

Earnhardt Jr. has had one of the fastest cars during Speedweeks and will start fifth in the second 125-mile qualifying race today.

He is confident of a win in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I'm pretty confident I'm going to win the Daytona 500 this year because I dreamed about it," said Earnhardt Jr., who finished 13th in his first Daytona 500 last year. "You can call me crazy, but I'll be talking to you in the post-race interview talking about how I did it."

Where did his dad finish in the dream?

"He's wasn't even there."

As for making a championship run in his sophomore season? Earnhardt Jr. takes a mature approach.

"I think if you name that as a goal, you'll get shot down pretty easy," he said. "I think the championships are won by guys that three-quarters of the way through the year say, 'Hey, man, I might have a shot at this.' I think that's how you've got to look at it."

* * *

Daytona 500

WHEN: 1 p.m., Sunday.

TV: Ch. 13.

COMING FRIDAY: The Times' annual Auto Racing special section, featuring a look at NASCAR's new TV deal and Dodge's return to Winston Cup for the first time since 1985.

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