`Junior' can drive

ON MOTOR SPORTS

`Senior' can do it all

May 28, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Almost everyone is talking about what a wonder Dale Earnhardt Jr. is, and for good reason. Going into today's Coca Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, the Winston Cup rookie is on the pole. He is also the only driver in the series who has two victories this season.

On top of that, he added to his reputation last weekend by winning The Winston, the sport's all-star race.

But, maybe the guy everyone should be talking about is Dale Earnhardt -- the elder.

It's Dale Jr.'s father who owns the cars "Little E" is driving to victory.

And that's not a small thing - nor for Dale Sr. a new thing.

It isn't small because you can count on one hand, maybe even two fingers, the number of very successful race-car drivers who have turned themselves into very successful race-car owners.

Let's see, there is Junior Johnson and Petty Enterprises.

Buck Baker, who as a driver won 46 races between 1949 and 1976, saw his cars win just 13 over 42 years as an owner. Buddy Baker, the king of superspeedway racing who won 40 times in his career, tried ownership for five years and didn't see his car win once. Three-time Winston Cup champion Cale Yarborough has owned cars for 13 years now and has one win.

Dale Sr.'s car owner, Richard Childress, has been incredibly successful with Dale Sr., but, though he was a Top 10 driver during his racing career, Childress never won a race.

And Childress, not one to lose his focus, has no trouble seeing where the root of success lies.

"I already know that Dale's the greatest driver in our sport," Childress said, referring to the seven-time Winston Cup champion. "But I'm beginning to wonder what impact he's going to have as a car owner."

Dale Jr., like Childress, is aware of what his dad has been achieving.

"Dad's doing a really good job," Dale Jr. deadpanned.

Earnhardt's success as a car owner looks like one of those overnight success stories. You know, he was just a driver yesterday, but now, suddenly, he has this car owner thing down pat.

But Dale Sr. has great vision. He has it on and off the race track. He has dreamed for years about owning big, successful race teams and he started building toward his dream way back in 1982, just two years after winning his first championship.

It was that year that he started his own Busch team. He owned it and drove for it for 12 years. In that time, he won 21 races, including five straight Grand National races at Daytona on the Saturday before the 500. In 1995, he put Steve Park in his Busch car and started a Craftsman Truck team with Ron Hornaday in the driver's seat.

Today, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) can claim Craftsman Truck titles in 1996 and 1998 and Busch titles with Dale Jr., in 1998 and 1999.

Altogether, Earnhardt-owned cars have won 42 Busch races, 31 Craftsman Truck races and three Winston Cup races (including the Winston).

"Everyone has seen what a fierce competitor Dale is on the race track," said Steve Crisp, director of public relations for DEI. "He's just that competitive as a car owner. He'll do whatever it takes to win."

In the garage, veteran crew chief Tony Eury Sr. oversees Dale Jr.'s race car. Earlier this month, in Richmond, Va., after Dale Jr. had become the first two-time winner this season, he was asked why Dale Sr. is having such success as a car owner. Eury had a ready answer.

"Dale supplies us with everything we need to be successful," Eury said. "We have a budget, but if we need something more, he goes and gets it. A lot of car owners get $3 [million] to $7million to operate their race teams, but they put $3million of it in their own pockets. Dale puts the full $7million into running the race team. He doesn't try to take any shortcuts."

Fill in the blanks

Questions that will be answered today at the Indianapolis 500: Will Al Unser Jr.'s return to the 500 after a five-year absence bring him his third 500 victory?

Will defending CART champion Juan Montoya join Ray Harroun (1911), George Souders (1927) and Graham Hill (1966) as the only rookies to win the race?

Will Sarah Fisher, 19 and the youngest driver in the field, become the first truly competitive woman driver in the 500 and have a Top 5 - or better - finish?

Will Scott Goodyear, who has been second three times, finally be in front at the finish?

Can an A.J. Foyt-owned car win for the second year in a row?

Pays to drive

Columbia's Bob Weickgenannt has decided the better idea is to drive Funny Cars rather than try to own them and drive them.

"I found more people asking me to drive their cars than knocking on my door with sponsorship money," he said.

So far this season, he has driven in four races for owner Bill Blomgren. He had a career-best performance in Houston, when he qualified 14th, hitting 304 mph in 5.08 seconds.

When Weickgenannt, 41, isn't driving or working on his local design business, he does color commentary during the Funny Car races.

"It's bittersweet," he said. "It's a great view, but gut-wrenching watching other guys race when I'm on the sideline."

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