Icommentary:/I Not The Intimidator

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LONG POND, Pa. – He’s not his father’s son, at least when it comes to last-lap battles. Or intimidation. Not yet.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a fine race car driver, perhaps one of the 10 best in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series at the moment.

But the last three laps – and particularly one turn – proved Little E has a lot to learn. Or maybe it proved he doesn’t have the same talent as his dad. Earnhardt Jr.’s first man-on-man battle on the last lap was a failure.

Earnhardt Jr. was comfortably in the lead, some 2.5 seconds clear of Bobby Labonte with 10 laps to go. Labonte began running Junior down, getting to his rear bumper with three laps to go Sunday in the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Picture, for a moment, that Earnhardt himself was in the lead, and Labonte had caught him with three laps left. The black No. 3 looks a lot different than the red No. 8. There was an aura about Earnhardt, one where other drivers – save Jeremy Mayfield – often thought twice about trying a daring pass.

That’s part of the reason why Earnhardt got the “Intimidator” nickname. When he was in second, the leader spent lots of time looking in the rear-view mirror. When he was in the lead, well, forget about it. You weren’t going to get around him, unless you knocked him out the way. Woe unto you if you tried that.

You think for a second that Labonte was going to pass Earnhardt Sr. had he been in the lead Sunday? You think for a minute that Labonte’s daring move in the tunnel turn would have worked on the seven-time champion?

Me neither, on both accounts.

Of course, Earnhardt Jr. isn’t his father. We all knew that.

I would have liked to have seen a little better effort Sunday, however. With three laps to go Labonte tried to go outside Earnhardt Jr., but Junior fought him off, putting a tire mark on Labonte’s car, then nearly forcing him into the wall.

That looked like his dad.

But the next lap was un-Earnhardt-like. The telling moment came in Turn 2, when Labonte drove it in deeper than Earnhardt Jr. Little E said his car had gotten tight, and Labonte’s car may have been handling a little better at that point.

But is that an excuse? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But there’s no excuse for Earnhardt Jr. saying “He wanted it worse than I did, apparently, and I wanted it pretty bad. I had to go shake his hand afterwards.”

Wanted it worse? It’s one thing to say “His car was handling better than mine.” But it’s another matter entirely to say someone wanted it more. Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird was asked by a reporter a long time ago if the Los Angeles Lakers – a team that had just beaten the Celtics for the NBA championship – wanted it more than the Celtics.

Bird, one of the most competitive athletes in the history of sport, unequivocally said no. An elite player like Bird would never admit to someone else wanting it more. That just goes against his nature.

We know Junior is competitive, too. Remember Daytona? Yes, he had a great car. But it seemed like Earnhardt Jr. simply willed his car to victory in the Pepsi 400. No one was going to get around him. That’s intimidation.

But Sunday at Pocono, that was missing.

“I tried to do everything I could in my power to outrun him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I could try 10 more times, and it would probably have the same result.

“The only thing I learned from it was how to handle it. I was really disappointed when he passed me. He went down into the tunnel turn and went through there like I ain’t never seen anybody go through that corner.

“I would have never been able to beat him. I’ve got that to reassure me that I couldn’t have done any better. I’m not going to sit here the next week and replay it 1,000 times like I normally would.”

So he learned how to handle it but won’t replay it? Does that make sense? How are you going to learn anything if you don’t replay it?

Good drivers get by on their talent. Great drivers use their talent and also learn from failure. You can bet Earnhardt Sr. replayed a lot of races, trying to figure out what he could have done differently.

Earnhardt Jr. could have done something differently Sunday. Maybe he could have taken Labonte up the track in Turn 1, perhaps blocking the outside move into the tunnel turn. Or maybe he simply could have matched Labonte’s hard charge into Turn 2, consequences be damned.

That’s what Earnhardt Sr. would have done.

Now, the question remains. Does it matter than Earnhardt Jr. isn’t Earnhardt Sr.? Not really, not at this point in Little E’s career. Let’s face it: Earnhardt Jr. has driven 59 Winston Cup races. No one expects him to be just like his dad – not even after 559 races. Please understand me. There’s only one Dale Earnhardt. No one will ever be like him.

And there’s only one Dale Earnhardt Jr. He most certainly has a great career in front of him.

But to whom much is given, much is expected. And it’s clear Little E has been given a lot, and we’re not talking about the millions Budweiser is paying the team to win races.

No, we’re talking about expectations. Junior has a ton. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe it’s unfair to ask him to be like his dad. Or Larry Bird. Or Joe Montana.

But no one wanted it more than those guys, and they sure wouldn’t admit it if someone did.

And if Earnhardt Jr. wants to get anywhere close to their stature, he can’t offer up excuses like he did Sunday.

“I’ve never really lost a race like that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Of course, I haven’t won that many. It sucks, really, when you lose on the last couple laps.”

That’s more like it. Take that stuff out about Labonte “wanting it more” and the reference to never being “able to beat him” and you have the stuff champions are made of.

No, he’ll never be his dad. But so what? He can be a great driver, a champion.

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