Earnhardt Jr. A Little Eager

CONCORD, N.C. – It’s about that time of year again.

Time for the cars and stars of NASCAR to roll into the Charlotte area for May racing activities that begin April 19 with The Winston all-star race and conclude with the Memorial Day running of the Coca-Cola 600.

In a Tuesday afternoon luncheon at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, defending winner of The Winston, Dale Earnhardt Jr., talked about the anticipation as he heads back into Charlotte looking for his first victory since last May.

“That win last year ranks right up there,” said Earnhardt Jr., a native of nearby Kannapolis, N.C. “I’ve come to Charlotte and watched a lot of races through the years, and The Winston is a race I look forward to. I think it’s an honor to be able to race in The Winston.”

Earnhardt Jr. is correct in that it’s an honor to be able to compete in NASCAR’s version of an all-star race, as only 21 drivers are invited. Those invited are the winners of a Winston Cup race either this year or the season prior, former series champions, and past winners of The Winston the past five years. In addition to those, which make up 19 of the 21, two drivers advance into The Winston through winning one of two qualifying races held just prior.

The all-star race is supposed to be a shootout, where cunning skill and raw bravery are rewarded. But last year, in only his first full season at the Winston Cup level, the young Earnhardt went against all odds by winning at Texas and Richmond to qualify, then pulling off the impossible by rallying from deep in the field to win The Winston in his first try.

Earnhardt Jr. became the first driver to win The Winston in his rookie season.

“I remember thinking I could have quit driving after that for the rest of my life and I would’ve been happy,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I thought I could never have that same feeling again. Plus, the way it all happened was what made it so exciting. It’s still as cool today as the day it happened.

“My dad didn’t have a plane to catch,” continued Earnhardt Jr., joking about how his father told him after his Texas win that because Earnhardt Jr. had to take time to do victory lane ceremonies and interviews, that he’d have to catch his own plane ride home. “So Dad and I got the chance to throw some beer around in victory lane. I’ll always remember that night and it’ll always be special.”

Of course, Dale Earnhardt is no longer with the NASCAR community or his son and family after his tragic death in the season-opening Daytona 500. Perhaps making it even worse for Earnhardt Jr. is the on-going safety saga that’s arisen since his father’s death, with nearly everyone trying to find answers to the true cause.

“In my mind, I know what happened and NASCAR is doing the right thing,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I know what the facts are, but don’t ask me about what I know. I’m not sitting here waiting for answers like you guys (in the media) are. I believe the seat belt broke, and I will always believe that. I sleep good at night.”

Earnhardt Jr. said he’s eager to get back to Charlotte and try to get what’s been a quiet but consistent season turned around with a victory.

“I’ve run great every time I’ve ever raced at Charlotte,” he said. “Even back when I was coming up in the Busch Series.”

That much was evident in last year’s Winston for Earnhardt Jr., who says he’s a big fan of the unique 70-lap format that pays $500,000 to the winner.

The Winston consists of three segments. The first two are 30 laps with the final segment being a 10-lap shootout for the checkered flag. The field will be inverted between the first and second segments. The inversion will be between positions six and 12. Only green flag laps count in The Winston.

“I like that last 10 laps where the rules are a little more relaxed than what they normally are,” said LMS President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. “This is like a gunfight at the OK Corral and Charlotte is Tombstone. I picked Dale Jr. to win last year and his dad got all over me for doing that. He said, ‘Humpy, why’d you want to put that kind of pressure on my kid?’

“But I tell you what, Dale Jr. did a great job of getting up through the field and winning, and he’s going to be tough again this year.”

Unless Earnhardt Jr. wins this Saturday night at Richmond, the last time he will have visited victory lane will have been at last year’s Winston.

“I’ve been trying to win every race I can,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “In The Winston, all the drivers know in order to win that last 10-lap race, you’ve got to be around at the end and not get caught up in a wreck. When you get to that last 10 laps, that’s about as cutthroat a racing as I’ve ever been in. It’s a throw-you-to-the-wolves kind of race where a lot of the drivers will put themselves at risk more than they usually would.”

The 19 competitors eligible for this year’s Winston are: Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Ward Burton, Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Jeremy Mayfield, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Steve Park, Jerry Nadeau, Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Bobby Hamilton, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte.

The two additional entries will be filled by the winners of the Winston Open and the No Bull Sprint.

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