NASCAR waits for son to rise

Auto racing: To say much is expected of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won't make his Winston Cup debut for another 3 1/2 months, is like saying his father can drive a little.


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is practicing for two big races here this week, but national television ads have been forcing him and the public to look much farther down the road.

It is Day 109 in the countdown to "E-Day", the day (May 30) he's scheduled to make his Winston Cup debut in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

Every passing day creates more pressure. It is a sponsor's gimmick. The ads have been on national television for three weeks, but they are but a small part of the load being carried by the 24-year-old.

"I just block a lot of that stuff out," he said. "All the countdown means is I've got to make the show at Charlotte. There's no other way out."

Earnhardt Jr. is at Daytona International Speedway practicing for Saturday's NAPA 300, in which he'll start 16th in defense of his Busch Grand National title. Once again, he'll be driving the AC Delco Chevrolet owned by his dad, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

He's also practicing for tomor row's International Race of Champions (IROC), in which he will start fourth, right in front of his father.

"It's a good spot," said Dale Jr., "At least I'll get to be ahead of him a lap or two until he decides to pass me."

Beyond the task at hand, it is what is anticipated for Dale Jr.'s future that is changing the life of the son of the defending Daytona 500 champion.

Already he is being compared with his father.

Dale Jr. doesn't look like his father, though they are both tall and slim. The son has blond hair, not dark brown. His features are less chiseled and his disposition less edgy.

There also seems to be a greater desire to reach out to the fans through the media, a predilection even his father noted a few months ago: "I'm raising a kid who will talk to you," Earnhardt Sr. said, just before ducking out of a news conference.

The elder Earnhardt has put his son in the hands of Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the man who turned Earnhardt into the second-biggest seller of sports memorabilia in the world, behind only retired Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.

And Hawk is working hard, developing a plan that will carry Dale Jr. from his Busch Grand National stage onto the big stage of Winston Cup racing.

"This year gives us a chance to season him a little more," Hawk said. "But I'm not sending him to charm school. When Dale Jr. speaks, his words are his own, whether it's 30 words or 130. We're not going to get him to do the TelePrompTer. Part of my role is in helping him with his public speaking and his attitudes, but this is a great opportunity for us to slow it down a little, give him a little more exposure."

Just a year ago, Dale Jr. stepped from nowhere into his dad's Busch car. Now he is about to defend the series championship, and while he may still live in a trailer, he no longer works for $300 a week.

He has signed a multimillion-dollar contract with Budweiser, reportedly $6 million a year for six years. No wonder its easy for Hawk to say: "There's no hurry to move him up. It's not about making money."

Over the next four months, his exposure should go through the roof, as Budweiser continues the countdown that includes TV commercials, merchandising plans and a Web site with chat sessions.

"Dale Jr. has demonstrated that he has the ability to become the next star in Winston Cup racing," said August A. Busch IV, vice president of marketing for Anheiser Busch Inc., explaining why the company signed him to the six-year agreement.

Besides the primary sponsor, Dale Jr.'s Busch car sponsor -- AC Delco -- has dibs on Earnhardt's kids. Associate sponsor Nabisco Inc. is on board with its own ad strategy -- "Rev Up and Snack out."

And Action Performance Companies, Inc. has signed Earnhardt Jr. through 2005 to an exclusive licensing agreement that covers everything from die-cast collectible cars to action figures and clothing.

Hawk's role in Dale Jr.'s life is as adviser and advocate. He brings deals to the budding star, helps with decision-making and otherwise watches over him.

Asked how much he thought Dale Jr. will sell in memorabilia this year, Hawk declined to answer. Asked if it would be about $5 million, he laughed, "Five million? If I don't sell that much, I'll open a Burger King."

After this year's Grand National season and five Winston Cup races, Dale Jr. will run for the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year title in 2000, and begin taking aim at his father's seven championships and at Jeff Gordon, the man he already sees as his main competition.

"Me and Jeff have talked about the rivalry just briefly," said Dale Jr. "It will fill the seats a little bit, that's for sure. If Jeff is running for the title and I can be that guy battling Jeff every week, it would make it interesting for everybody."

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