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Pressure of a family legacy

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the first rookie to win The Winston, says what happened to Adam Petty puts everything in perspective.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2000

CONCORD, N.C. -- So this is what it's like to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Minutes after posting the best lap of a Coca-Cola 600 practice session Wednesday afternoon at Lowe's Motor Speedway, his laptop computer so frustrated the 25-year-old that he quickly changed from his racing suit to baggy blue jeans, a button-down shirt, tennis shoes and a hat and took off for a nearby shopping mall to get it fixed.

Never mind that less than two hours remained before the start of qualifying.

And this is the son of The Intimidator?

Two victories this season, then becoming the first rookie to win The Winston all-star race last weekend apparently have eased any pressure of carrying one of the most recognizable names in motorsports.

"Everything has worked out pretty cool so far this season," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I didn't know if I could win in Winston Cup at all as a rookie. To have two wins already takes away a lot of the pressure. It's a relief, really."

Earnhardt Jr., who began his career racing Late Models, won Busch Grand National championships in 1998-99.

He made his Winston Cup debut in the Coca-Cola 600 last year at Lowe's Motor Speedway, qualifying eighth and finishing 16th in a car owned by his father.

This season, Earnhardt Jr. is 17th in the points standings but has failed to finish three races.

"I'm making a real good living, but all I wanted to do was be able to hold down a job," Earnhardt Jr. said.

"I look at my peers and see what they've accomplished and what I've accomplished, and I think I've done enough to stick around."

Among his peers was Adam Petty, the great-grandson of NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty, grandson of Richard Petty and son of Kyle Petty.

Both could relate to each other's situation, having grown up as a member of a successful racing family.

They played pickup football games together in the infields of racetracks their fathers competed at when they were younger.

Petty, 19, had just begun to emerge as a possible heir to the family legacy when he was killed in a Busch series practice crash on May 12 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

His death shook Earnhardt Jr., made him take notice that a famous last name is no guarantee.

"What happened to Adam puts everything in perspective," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You never know when you're going to be here or not."

But here is exactly where Earnhardt Jr. wants to be. He is making a living and holding down a full-time job but admits free time has become an issue.

"I'm having a pretty good time with it all right now," he said. "But I always have a good time. I just need a little free time. If I get at least one free day a week, I can handle everything else. I need one day a week just to hang out and pay the bills."

Earnhardt Jr. has never second-guessed his decision to follow his father, Dale, and grandfather, Ralph, into the sport. He knew there would be comparisons and pressure to perform to the standards set by his father.

"I'm trying to follow in the footprints of Davey Allison or somebody like that more so than my father," Earnhardt Jr. said.

"It's tough being in the sport alone, much less having to follow in the footsteps of somebody who's already been successful. You get a lot of scrutiny and a lot of expectations from having a successful father like that or anybody in the family.

"It's pretty difficult sometimes to try to live up to it and not being able to enjoy yourself. Even if you're not quite as successful, you can't let that ruin your life. You just have to concentrate on having fun."

Saturday night, he again proved there is more to him than just a name when he became the first rookie to win The Winston.

As he celebrated at the finish line -- Victory Lane was closed in memory of Petty -- Dale Earnhardt jogged across the infield to meet his son. Once there, the elder Earnhardt grabbed his son's neck, hugged him, celebrated and then left.

Dad lost. Son won.

It's a relationship built with a combination of competition, respect and love.

"He's real careful what he says to me in a complimentary way," Earnhardt Jr. said.

"We're getting closer and closer as it goes. We've both got strong teams, and we both want to run good. I guess it's rare for a father and son to be racing each other, but we have the same ideals and same goals and go about our jobs almost identical."

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