Earnhardt News
2000 Season

Earnhardt gains a new sense of competitiveness
Damian Cristodero
St. Petersburg Times

Mooresville, N.C. (Jan. 15, 2000)
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 breath.

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 November.

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 season.

"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 championship."

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 happened."

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 competition is."

"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 Earnhardt said.

That was the driver in Earnhardt talking, but there was a little bit of proud papa in there as well.


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