Talladega, 500 miles, and October are a good Earnhardt combination – Dale Sr. won (his last race),the Winston 500, in 2000, and Jr. won the EA Sports 500 last season. Jr. says following in his father’s footsteps suits him just fine.
He’s young, and he’s the talented son of a legend who’s life and death are still raw memories for most racing fans. And today the gaze of the camera and the public is focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr. more closely than on any NASCAR driver.
Yet even with this added pressure squeezing down on him, ‘Little E’ is racing as hard and as well and any NASCAR driver.
Attitude, it seems, can win races.
“There’s more to me, I think, professionally than just magazine covers and (big-name) sponsors and fun times,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to win championships and I like winning races. We look forward to winning more, but there’s a side from just winning the championship and all the extras and whatnot that comes along with it.
“I can see that I really have a great opportunity to take it to several different levels and to be somebody that maybe is in the same sentence with several of the greats.”
Going back to Daytona for the 500 this February, a year after his father died in the wall on the last lap the 2001 race, Jr. handled the pressure with a measured mix of maturity and emotion.
“I dealt with that stuff when I went back in July  for the [Pepsi 400],” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I had hard-core emotions about going back after my father’s death. Everybody knows the story. Had fun there and then went to the race with a strong will and won the race.
“I’ve said my piece with that place and straightened out any wrinkles we might’ve had in our relationship. I probably won’t have the same emotion as most people this year [at the Pepsi 400]. Most people might be depressed or upset, but I’m going to keep on being upbeat and having a damn good time.”
Earnhardt Jr. is coming off a solid 2001. In addition to the emotionally dramatic Pepsi win he won at Dover just days after the attack on America, Sept. 11, then won at Talladega Superspeedway, the track where his dad reigned supreme and won his last race. After a slow start Jr. kicked his 2002 campaign into high gear with a second at the MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March.
Earnhardt Jr. has found the ability to reflect on his father as a dad, a teacher, a mentor and a great race driver.
“I look at dad’s career and how he started out. He started out with a Rookie of the Year title and a championship after that, but then he went through several years of mediocrity where he was just struggling to finish well, but he was still winning races,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Hopefully I’ll give myself that tolerance of a few years to get it worked out.” When he was in line for the Rookie of the Year title in 2000, Jr. appeared to have a lock on the title as the series reached the half way mark. But he struggled down the stretch and lost the title to Matt Kenseth.
Earnhardt attributes the slide to a number of things, including a lack of team chemistry.
“Really there were a lot of things,” he said. “We had a lot of problems – we all had ego problems, personality problems, we just lost all respect for each other – me and my teammates and me and my crew.
“We just kind of let it go to our heads, the success we had at the first of the year, and then we couldn’t repeat it like we wanted to. We never really pointed fingers at each other, but we did let each other know we weren’t happy.”
Now, all that seems to be behind the Bud driver, who is running for a championship and wants to have a good time doing it.
“I like having fun – who the hell ain’t out on the town having fun when they’re 27,” he said. “But I know I need to straighten my (butt) up when it’s time to race, and now it’s time to race.”