Little E Fizzles Out

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., an expected cruise to the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie-of-the-Year title never came to be. He had to watch close friend Matt Kenseth take the honor.

Despite wins early in the year at Texas and Richmond, as well as a thrilling victory in The Winston all-star race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. just couldn’t find the consistency that his former Busch Series foe could.

Coming off two straight Busch Series titles over Kenseth, many were expecting this year to be much the same for the young Earnhardt in Winston Cup.

“It was a goal at the beginning of the year because we had a chance to do it,” Earnhardt Jr. says of his hopes for the rookie title.

But it never happened.

Kenseth would win only one race - the Coca-Cola 600 - but was able to string together a series of strong runs to end up 14th in the final Winston Cup standings. Earnhardt Jr. was 16th.

And if there’s one person ready to take a break over the winter from the rough-and-tumble world of the Winston Cup garage area, Earnhardt Jr. says that would be him.

“This sport is fun as hell, but sometimes you just get tired of it,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “It’s not always the best thing going.”

Earnhardt Jr. - a media and corporate darling - has been through a lot this year, and the 26-year-old Kannapolis, N.C.-native says there’s been a lot to adapt to.

“It’s been good and bad,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “It’s been a lot more difficult traveling and being away from home so much more, and there have been a whole lot more responsibilities. I don’t like being away from home, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than what I am now.”

And ‘Junior’ explains he’s done a whole lot of learning along the way.

“Patience,” Earnhardt Jr. says, when asked what he learned most this season. “Patience… and more durability, both physically and mentally. Just learning how to get from point A to point B with a good mindset. Walking from the trailer to my race car and having to sign 10 or 15 autographs, doing that while still trying to maintain my focus with what I want to do on the track. It’s more difficult here in Winston Cup because there are more distractions, so I’ve had to adjust.”

Things were looking good for Earnhardt Jr. earlier in the season, but eight finishes of 31st or worse ended up taking a toll on the pilot of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

“We all just got worn down and burned out,” Earnhardt says. “I thought we were prepared, and probably a little more than I thought we’d be. We really did well to start off the year - winning those races was pretty phenomenal, and I was pretty happy with that. But the rest of the year was a disappointment.”

Dale Earnhardt says he could see the signs of struggles become evident with his son and the No. 8 team as the season wore to a close.

"They were all excited about what was happening,” Earnhardt says. “They worked awfully hard. Sometimes they work too hard, and sometimes they don't work hard enough, but they work awfully hard and sometimes forget what the big picture is. They got frustrated because they were tired when they got behind a little bit.”

Bobby Labonte, fresh off his first Winston Cup championship, says he expects to be racing with the young Earnhardt for positioning in the future standings for years to come. But then again, with Kenseth, a late-impressive showing by Dave Blaney, and Tony Stewart, there are going to be a few young drivers presenting challenges next year in the points race.

“There are a lot of young drivers out there that are experienced and fast,” Labonte says. “They're going to be winning championships before it's over with, too."

As long as they show a little patience.

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