DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt turns to watch the Busch Grand National practice going on behind him and his voice, when it comes, holds disbelief.
"Can you imagine, if that was your son out there?" he said softly. "I can't believe that's my son driving my race car. He's done good."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 23, is tall and slim, like his father, and, as he prepares to run his first full season in the Busch Grand National Series, he keeps repeating to himself: "I am good enough. I am good enough."
If he had heard his dad, he probably would have been startled, because Dale Jr. will tell you flat-out it's a rare moment when the seven-time champion offers a compliment.
"He never gives you an inch to breathe in," the younger Earnhardt said. "And he won't ever tell me I'm good, but it's his car I'm driving and I consider that a pat on the back.
"Don't get me wrong, he's been a great father, but he's earned everything he's got by hard work and he's very stern. He knows what you're capable of doing and he expects that every time, 100 percent of the time."
Earnhardt said his son is stretching the truth: "I told him just the other day that he did a good job qualifying."
But, Earnhardt added, his father, Ralph, the 1956 Sportsman champion, wasn't big on hugs and compliments, either.
"Dale Jr. doesn't get up early enough, he doesn't eat right and he plays on those computers all night," said Earnhardt, who likes to get up around 5 a.m. "You pay somebody, they're supposed to be at work on time.
"But I think he will be a good racer. Some people have said it might be too early to put Steve Park in my Winston Cup car and Dale Jr. in my Busch car, but they both have to go through their rookie years sometimes. You've got to let them pay their dues."
L Today, Dale Jr. will start third in the NAPA Auto Parts 300.
He'll also tell you that while his dad can well afford to put a silver spoon in his mouth, he hasn't shown any inclination to do it.
"So far," Dale Jr. said, laughing, "it's been nothing but plastic."
When Dale Jr. was 16 and got his first speeding ticket, his dad told him, "I guess, you better go get a job so you can pay for your lawyer."
So Dale Jr. got a job pumping gas. It wasn't until he was 18 that his father finally hired him to work in his race shop. For the past three years, he has worked for $350 a week. Now, he has gotten a raise, but with the raise comes pressure.
Part of what's facing him is the pressure that comes from driving for Dale Earnhardt. It's why he's silently chanting that mantra: "I am good enough. I am "
"I've had to ask myself if I'm the man for the job," Dale Jr. said. "And I think the only way I'm going to be able to erase the pressures of driving a Grand National race car and driving for Dale Earnhardt, seven-time champion, is to continue telling myself I'm the man for the job.
"I feel like I am. I had some success last year. I'm deserving of a ride. I don't know if it's this ride, but I feel like I'm capable of it."
A year ago, Dale Jr. drove in eight Busch races, six of them for his mother, Teresa, and had one Top 10 finish, a seventh at Michigan. At the same time, Park, whom Earnhardt has promoted to his Winston Cup team, drove this Busch car to a third-place finish in the Grand National points race and earned Rookie of the Year honors.
Besides the Grand National races, the younger Earnhardt has three years of Late Model Sportsman experience. In that series, he built his own cars, won three times and finished in the top five 59 times.
Randy LaJoie, the defending Grand National champion, who drove against Dale Jr. last season, said: "Little E may be able to get a ride in his daddy's car, but there's one thing his daddy can't buy him and that's my respect. He's had to earn that, and he has."
As Dale Earnhardt watches his son practice, there is pride in his face. Over the years, he has always taken pleasure in believing his own father would be proud, but now, he really knows what that means.
"He's got to figure out what he has to do," said Earnhardt, ever the taskmaster, as Dale Jr. flies past. "As he gets in the race, he's got to run along with some good cars and try to learn. The highlight of his career -- and I want him to have a long career -- is not winning this race. A win here, whether it comes [today] or 20 years from now, he needs to learn as he goes and that's what he'll do."
Pub Date: 2/14/98