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Dale Jr. proves a point

Posted: Monday, February 17, 2003

The father would have known how the son felt. Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have been proud, too, to see the way Junior handled his bad luck Sunday and helped a teammate win the Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to Daytona feeling he still had something to prove -- to fans, to the rest of the racing world, maybe a little to himself. He wanted to be taken seriously as a driver, not be seen as a star in name only who loved the fast life more than the fast lane.

He left without the big trophy but not without making his point.

Junior outdrove everyone with three victories during Speed Weeks, only to get stopped Sunday by the simplest of problems -- a dead battery. A $100,000 car with a lousy $100 part.

His dad would have empathized. One year he lost the Daytona 500 by running into a seagull. Another year he cut a tire on the last lap.

What would have pleased his father immensely was the way his son, two laps back, roared ahead on the inside to help teammate Michael Waltrip draft into the lead past Jimmie Johnson on the 106th lap.

It was a sloppy, choppy race, this rain-soaked Daytona 272 1/2 that ended under a caution after just 109 of the scheduled 200 laps. But it was huge for Dale Earnhardt Inc., for Waltrip and, in a way, for Junior, who had led from the 43rd lap to the 64th before his battery failed.

If he couldn't win, he could at least help his friend and teammate with the kind of move that serious drivers make.

In winning the Busch Series race Saturday, Earnhardt looked as if he were cruising in the country, not bothered by the havoc behind him. There was fire and smoke, spinouts and crashes, and for all anyone could tell, he could have been singing along with songs on the radio as he took the lead on lap 54 and stayed in front the rest of the way.

He was the same in the 500, enjoying views of the race on the five Jumbotrons around the track while he was ahead.

''It bugs me,'' he said of the way fans and critics perceived him. ''But you've got to know me to understand where I came from and how I came to become a driver and how I've watched the sport eat other people alive. It may eat me alive, but I'm going to win my races and try to go get my championship. I ain't going to get an ulcer over it.''

Junior got nothing handed to him as a kid and his father was more often traveling than staying home to coach him. When Junior and his half-brother, Kerry, decided to be drivers, they had to prove themselves on their own. They got their fingernails dirty, built their own cars, put together their own crews and raced around North Carolina short tracks.

Their father encouraged them, helping out with used equipment, but didn't make it too easy. Yet Dale Sr. couldn't have been prouder than when Junior won his first Winston Cup race, hugging his son and smiling and saying it felt better than anything he, himself, had ever won.

When Junior says he saw the sport ''eat other people alive'' he means drivers who had talent and no sponsors, or sponsors and no luck. He means his father, the greatest driver in Daytona history, who didn't win the 500 until his 20th start in 1998, finishing second five times before that.

Junior was a teenager when his father led the 500 until cutting a tire on a piece of metal with half a lap to go. Earnhardt limped home fifth as Derrick Cope grabbed the victory.

''It hurt,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''Those were tough, tough times. It was awful.''

The Intimidator, for all his popularity and all the sympathy his hard luck won him, agonized about it until he finally won the Daytona 500 -- three years before he was killed at 49 in a collision on the last lap.

Whatever happened in his own career, however the luck played out and the public perceived him, Junior was determined not to let it give him an ulcer. Still, he couldn't ignore it.

''When you read in a magazine that people say, 'Well, if he matures and he goes after it, he can get it.' It upsets me that I don't have that perception already,'' he said after the Busch victory. ''But it's hard to change that. It's something you won't change overnight. And it was my attitude in creating some kind of partying persona that's failed me a little bit now.''

Junior's ''Club E'' in his basement, his love of a good time and touch of a wild streak, gave some people the impression he wasn't as serious about being a great driver as he was about being a star. He reinforced the image last week by agreeing to be the guest celebrity photographer for Playboy.com at a session with former Playmates Erica, Nicole and Jaclyn Dahm.

It was the same kind of commercially inspired ''image is everything'' rap that Andre Agassi had to overcome from his early years in tennis. Agassi outgrew that perception, becoming a player and a man of substance. Earnhardt has already begun to do the same.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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