Earnhardt gains a new sense of
(Jan. 15, 2000)
St. Petersburg Times
For a brief moment Wednesday night, Dale Earnhardt
morphed from a cool, confident stock car racing executive into ... well, into a father.
Earnhardt waited patiently for his 25-year-old son,
Dale Jr., to get into position so they could have their picture taken during a media
function. But when Little E continued clowning with fellow Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers
Steve Park and Ron Hornaday, Big E cracked the whip.
"For the picture," he told his son under his
Smiles abounded. Flash bulbs popped.
Dale Jr. may be a two-time Busch Grand National champion, but
his dad's word is still law.
"When me and him sit down and do a TV interview
together, you know he has the floor," Dale Jr. said. "You're only allowed to
speak when he gives you the nod."
As for their driver/owner relationship, Dale Jr. said it
works fine, though there is no formal contract.
"It's kind of a verbal agreement," he said.
"He tells me what to do, and I do it."
None of this is said with malice. Dale Jr. calls his father
"a class act." Even Earnhardt's reprimand was done through a slim grin.
But there is another, more intriguing, dynamic at play here.
Dale Jr. will run a full Winston Cup schedule this year,
putting him in direct competition with his 48-year-old father from February through
Much is expected from both. Earnhardt is coming off a
three-victory season he said laid the groundwork for a possible eighth points
championship. Dale Jr. should challenge for the rookie title.
Neither said he will defer to the other on the track. Is
Earnhardt worried about the competition?
"I beat him all last year," he said of his son's
five Winston Cup races. "It was no problem."
Earnhardt is rid of one problem: the pain in his shoulder and
neck. The repair of two upper-back vertebrae on Dec. 17 took care of the injury he said
was the result of the sport's wear and tear.
Earnhardt said he will not be able to test next week at
Daytona, but may be cleared to drive during testing in early February at Las Vegas.
It's not a big deal, Earnhardt said. He doesn't like to test,
anyway. The real prize is Daytona.
"I'd have to be, shouldn't I?" Earnhardt said when
asked if he is confident he will run well. "I've been pretty good on restrictor-plate
races for a long, long time, and it hasn't just been last year. I've finished second a lot
at Daytona. That's right behind the first guy and that's not far from the front."
And in front is just where he sees himself at the end of the
"I feel really good," said Earnhardt, who finished
seventh in points in 1999. "The team is really pumped up about the year. It is going
to be a good year for us and a good opportunity to go out there and try to win that eighth
Dale Jr.'s expectation is to run in the top 15-20 every week.
He said it is "doubtful" he will win a race, "but hopefully by the end of
the year we'll have a team we feel confident with going into next season."
Like his dad, he will not compromise on Daytona.
"It's the kind of place you almost sacrifice your whole
career to get to," Dale Jr. said. "The only reason I've been driving a race car
is to get there. You can keep every place else, keep all the championships and wins.
That's how big a deal it is."
So is his relationship with his dad.
It wasn't always close, especially when Dale Jr. was younger
and Earnhardt was away for large chunks of the year, accumulating a record number of
Winston Cup titles.
"I just didn't spend a lot of time around him,"
Dale Jr. said. "It was tough to come to terms with who he was and what he was and
what kind of person he was. I was never able to get close enough to make that bond."
Ultimately, what kept them apart, brought them together.
"Finally I started racing and winning some championships
and brought myself to a level where our conversations were more profitable," Dale Jr.
said. "I understand him now and what he did and why he did it. I think he understands
me more now. I probably make a lot more sense to him. A lot of good things have
Dale Jr. won BGN championships in 1998 and '99. He earned
$3.068-million in 72 starts over three years, including a record $1.68-million last
season. He said the five Winston Cup races he entered showed him "how tough the
"I was really surprised the guys run as hard as they do
all race long," he continued. "In a 500-mile race, you'd think those guys would
set a slower pace, but they go hard and put it on the line every lap."
And he has yet to beat his dad.
"In 2000, it may be a little different," the elder
That was the driver in Earnhardt talking, but there was a
little bit of proud papa in there as well.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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