Neither engine nor head idling

Auto racing: Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveals some telling thoughts about the host of uncertainties facing the son of a legend.

July 13, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

At 28, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still fresh-faced and a member of the youth movement in Winston Cup racing. When he talks about himself, something he did at length last weekend in Daytona Beach, Fla., it becomes apparent just how young he really is.

Years ago, tennis great John McEnroe seemingly carried an imaginary couch around with him for media interviews that often felt like therapy sessions. These days, Earnhardt does much the same thing. Responding to questions, he expands into impromptu self-examinations.

He was asked about re-signing with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and revealed much more about how he thinks.

"I'm a little slow about it, but I just want to make sure that it's cool," he said. "I've thought about driving for other teams. I always drove for my father or in a roundabout way drove for him. And I've always kind of wondered what it would be like to drive for another race team.

"There's probably advantages to that that I don't have now, but there's also disadvantages - securities and comforts that I'd probably be giving up to go do that. So it's kind of difficult sometimes to really see the vision that you need to see.

"I know what I need to do is stay with DEI and try to become a bigger part of that company and try to be a part of the success that it will have in the future. I'm just trying to sell the rest of myself on that."

This weekend, he and his red Chevrolet will be at Chicagoland Speedway for the next Winston Cup race and his next chance to win a race.

"Winning championships and winning races are what really matter to me," said Earnhardt, 15th in the Winston Cup standings. "We win championships to achieve power, to achieve authority. That's everybody's role in life, to gain authority and to gain power. That's the main drive of anybody, I believe."

He said his role with DEI isn't really clear to him. He doesn't have a title or anything like one. He said he likes to "feel like I have an influence on some of the decisions that are made."

However, he said: "I don't think I will ever be able to fulfill a fraction of the role my dad played in the company. You want to snap your fingers and be the man, but I think the best thing for [the] future [is] we eventually have to bring somebody in that can be the president of the company and can make major decisions."

He did make a decision about owning a Busch Series team. But after talking it over with his stepmother, Teresa, and DEI manager Ty Norris, it was decided the team would be a joint venture.

"I wanted to do it solely on my own," Earnhardt said. "But Teresa and Ty thought it would be better if me and [Teresa] went into it as a partnership, where we could tie it in with DEI a little more as far as employees and how the program developed and how it would complement our Cup teams in the future."

He will drive in the Busch races at Daytona and Talladega and possibly bring in Sam Hornish Jr., the IRL champion, and maybe someone else to drive from six to 10 or more races.

You can sense the difficulty Earnhardt is having in his search for firm footing since his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500. And as he continues to talk, you get a fair picture of some of his needs.

Before last weekend's race, Earnhardt spoke at length about teamwork, about winning one for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and about his friendship with Michael Waltrip. In the Pepsi 400, all those loyalties were on display.

He and Waltrip were sitting pretty in the closing laps, Waltrip first and Earnhardt second. Second would have been a good finish, a confidence builder, and Earnhardt would have been happy enough to stay in second. He told his crew chief, Tony Eury, on his team's radio that it was Waltrip's "turn to win, anyway."

That set a lot of tongues wagging post-race. Was Earnhardt indicating the race finish was prearranged? Or was he simply saying he was comfortable with his car's being second-best because Waltrip had supported him in other races in which Waltrip's car was second-best?

In any case, Eury urged Earnhardt - whose car had been unable to get the lead all night - to go for the win. Earnhardt attempted the pass and finished sixth. The result didn't make him happy.

But Waltrip had won and so had DEI.

"My dad and Michael were really, really good friends," said Earnhardt, who, with Waltrip, had finished first and second in three other restrictor-plate races, including that terrible 2001 Daytona 500. "I always kind of envied that relationship, because I thought that me and Michael would have made pretty good friends.

"And then, when they talked about him driving for us, I was like, `Wow! That would be great, we'll be teammates. We'll be just like buddies.' I've always wanted that relationship with Michael, to be friends and do the things that him and Dad did together. So it's pretty cool ... how we've kind of teamed up over the past couple restrictor-plate races to get to victory."

But last weekend, as Earnhardt ruminated over his future, sixth place was not what he was looking for.

Winston Cup standings

(Through July 6)

No. Driver.......................... Points No. Driver............. Points

1. Sterling Marlin 2,368 11. Dale Jarrett 1,979

2. Mark Martin 2,291 12. Michael Waltrip 1,978

3. Jimmie Johnson 2,254 13. Jeff Burton 1,954

4. Rusty Wallace 2,224 14. Ricky Craven 1,929

5. Jeff Gordon 2,218...........15. D. Earnhardt Jr. 1,881

6. Ricky Rudd 2,168 16. Ryan Newman 1,868

7. Tony Stewart 2,156 17. Terry Labonte 1,803

8. Matt Kenseth 2,093 18. Kyle Petty 1,780

9. Bill Elliott 2,084 19. Dave Blaney 1,751

10. Kurt Busch 2,073 20. Elliott Sadler 1,713

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