The Mind Talent And Heart Of A Winner
April 6, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
It doesn't have anything to do with his first Winston Cup Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway. There have been many drivers who have captured a NASCAR race or two that don't know a single thing about being a winner.
Dale Jr. is just a good person, thoughtful and caring. He's the kind of boy you'd want to date your daughter. Sure, he's a little wild, but that is part of the glory of being young.
Imagine what it must be like to be the son of NASCAR's legendary dude in black, Dale Earnhardt. Imagine what it must be like to wind up in the same profession, trying to live up to standards that so far only a handful have reached in more than five decades. Then imagine topping the old man, needing just 12 starts to accomplish what he took 16 to do. Imagine that just one other driver in the past three decades has won his first Winston Cup race faster (Ron Bouchard accomplished the feat in 1981 with 11 starts).
Then imagine that same young driver finding the guts -- or the personality or the heart -- to climb out of the car and do your best impression of Andy Griffin. Shucks, it wasn't nothing. This was no act, no rehearsed speech written by some marketing whiz. No, this was a good kid being himself. For the television cameras and the rest of the world, Earnhardt says, "It feels good to contribute. You just want to be an asset to your team."
You might Junior, but not most of the millionaire 25-year-old sports figures in the world. Who can imagine New Orleans Saints running back Ricky Williams, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker or Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson speaking those words. They're too busy ripping opponents, towns, fans and coaches.
What makes it even more amazing, what makes Dale Jr. more of a true champion, is that he knows he's good. But instead of getting a big head, he recently went through a "crisis of confidence."
Before Little E's win at Texas, he'd just spent most of March struggling. Dale Jr. hit the wall at Atlanta and finished 29th. Brake fluid from a severed line had spilled onto his tire. At Darlington, there was a stripped axle, another hit wall and a 40th finish. At Bristol, NASCAR's pinball of a short track, Earnhardt got banged around -- not once, but twice –- and finished 38th.
Little Earnhardt is far from a polished driver. Remember, he still doesn't have enough experience going around tracks as Jeff Gordon did when he was 16. Earnhardt, however, is a natural, and he's worked hard since he started racing NASCAR full-time three years ago. He's also worked hard at being true to himself, which is sincere and thoughtful.
But he's also super aggressive, perhaps from a few of his father's chromosomes. In addition, Little E has been getting behind the wheel of the one of the best cars on the circuit the last few races. That No. 8 Monte Carlo has been a rocket, especially in Texas, and it is best to get out of his way.
Several drivers spent most of Sunday doing just that. At least one veteran driver said he was frightened by Dale Jr.'s wildness, while Bill Elliott wrecked partly because he was gun shy around Earnhardt and found himself out of line.
Crew chief Tony Eury Sr. says of his driver, "We've got to keep him toned down. He's like a wild horse."
Before the Texas victory, Dale Jr. was down in the dumps. Fortunately, for a rookie, he is mature in many ways. Somehow, counsel found his ears. "You can beat yourself up only so much before you take a lot of confidence away from yourself," Earnhardt says.
He talked to Hank Parker Jr., a good friend, who is a regular on the Busch Series circuit. Parker, also the son of a legend -- top trophy fisherman Hank Parker -- has struggled at times on the track. "There was a time he thought he was never going to drive again, but talking to him or somebody like that, makes you chill out and get ready to go again," Earnhardt says.
Gary Nelson, a former crew chief who now works as the Winston Cup competition director, sat Dale Jr. down for a little pep talk.
"He told me some things that nobody else had said to me before," Earnhardt says. "Even though a lot of good things have happened to me in my career, I sometimes need to be told that I'm a good race car driver. It's just like being in a marriage. Even though your wife knows you love her, you've still got to tell her sometimes.
"Gary sat down with me and told me he knew I was going to be able to make it and be a good race car driver, that I just needed to calm down. It was good to hear."
It's also good to hear that there's a young, professional athlete that knows a little bit about how a husband should treat his wife, especially since all the headlines are about the flip side: paternity suits, divorces and illegitimate children.
Believe it or not, Dale, having a straight head off the track is just as important as having it all together on the track. And you have it together, whether you're winning races in Texas or crashing in Bristol.
Don't doubt it. You're a winner.