Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a fine example of the adage “an old head on young shoulders.” Still in his 20s, he’s been around racing and race drivers for years, and his two successful years in Winston Cup racing have made him the leader of the circuit’s young guns.
Race fans know the story. Jr.’s house, “Club E,” is Party Central. Visitors are greeted by huge refrigerators stocked with Budweiser. The house was even featured on MTV’s “Cribs,” which has come to be the new barometer of cool for the tattoo and body piercing set.
But Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants the rest of the world to know that his world isn’t all glitz and suds.
“I think that a lot of people assume that if it’s Tuesday night, I’m out trying to find where the party’s at,” said Little E, who picked up his first win of the 2002 season at Talladega. “But really, there are times when I just sit at home and chill and it’s real pathetic. I’ll just sit around, talk to my cats, and maybe put some lasagna in the microwave.”
Ignore the money and fame and Earnhardt Jr. comes across like many 27-year-olds. Yes, he does like to party, but he’s also responsible enough to take care of business when he’s on the track. And just over a year after his father’s death in the Daytona 500, the driver of the Budweiser Chevrolet appears at peace with himself and his “job.”
“This year, I’m disappointed that I haven’t stomped my competitive foot yet,” he said. “But I’m still happy with where I’m at. I learned a long time ago to leave what happens at the track there and not take it home. I also know I’ve had a lot of doors opened for me, and I’m just trying to do what I need to do.”
Earnhardt Jr. currently leads the voting among fans for Most Popular Driver. And while Dale Sr. could sometimes be contrary, the son seems genuinely happy to be part of a new generation of drivers – and all its trappings.
“The sport has definitely changed,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Used to in a stock car race, half the field would be made up of drivers from North Carolina. Now there are only about three. You’ve got guys from California and all over, and suddenly the sport is a big international deal.
“I can’t see anything negative about it. People root for you now not because of where you’re from, but because they like you. That helps you, that helps your sponsor, and it just gives racing more appeal all the way around.”
For a youngster, Little E has an exceptional appreciation of NASCAR’s roots. That comes naturally being the son of Dale Earnhardt and the grandson of Ralph, but he also understands the importance of making his own way.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I really like David Pearson, and I like Bobby Allison because he’s such a nice man,” he said. “A lot of the younger guys out there today got here on a different road, so maybe they don’t have the same appreciation for some of the older guys.
“(Rookie) Jimmie Johnson, for example, is a great guy, but I doubt he knows anything about David Pearson or Ralph Earnhardt. But all of us are a different breed. Maybe it’s just the difference between having guts and being a throwback.”
While many doors were opened because of his name, Junior kicked a few in himself. He won back-to-back Busch titles in 1998 and 1999, and in ’99 he scored six checkers with 22 top-10 finishes in NBS action.
In just two full seasons of Winston Cup competition, Earnhardt Jr. has five victories and almost $10 million in earnings.
“I did well in the Busch Series, but the fact that my father was a seven-time Winston Cup champion had a lot to do with me getting in,” he said. “But I think I was able to make some smart moves and work my way up. You first get into Winston Cup and you worry if the other guys will even talk to you. But then you start to show you have some ability and it’s not long before they work with you during a race and you start to feel like you’re part of the gang.”
Little E has even taken time to think about the future – a future that sees him outside of the cockpit.
“I don’t think I want to be a Winston Cup owner, because there’s just too much going on,” he said. “Maybe being a Busch owner would be good because there’s a little less pressure and it’s pretty fun. But I do think I am qualified to help run a Winston Cup organization and help make some decisions.
“We’ll see. I’d like to race another 15 years – or until I’m about 45. I think after that, I could find somewhere that’d give me steady employment.”
Learn the Lingo
“The car checked out fine in the dyno, but it might not make any difference with all that bear grease on the track. Throw in some dirty air, and all you can do is hope the scuffs will help the machine run flat-out.”
To the serious race fan, this statement makes perfect sense. It translates to a car going through a dynamometer, which measures and engine’s horsepower, racing on a track that has utilized patching material to fill cracks and holes (bear grease), and trying to make it through the turbulent air currents caused by fast-moving cars (dirty air) on tires that have been used at least once (scuffs) while racing as fast as possible (flat-out).
Here is a short lesson in racing lingo for the first-time fan.
Apron: The paved portion of the racetrack that separates the racing surface from the infield. While listening to Sunday’s race, you’ll hear announcers talk about drivers shooting down on the apron.
Chassis: Simply a fancy name for the steel structure or frame of the car.
Chute: A racetrack straightaway. When drivers head down the backstretch at Talladega, they’re going through the chute.
Downforce: A combination of aerodynamic and centrifugal force. The more downforce, the more grip the car has. But more downforce also means more drag.
Draft: The aerodynamic effect that allows two or more cars traveling nose-to-tail to run faster than a car running by itself. When one car follows another closely, the one in front cuts through the air that provides less resistance for the car in the back.
Drag: The resistance a car experiences when passing through air at high speeds. A resisting force exerted on a car parallel to its airstream and opposite in direction to its motion.
Esses: A slang term used for a series of acute left and right-hand turns on a road course with one turn immediately following another.
Firewall: A solid metal plate that separates the engine compartment from the driver’s compartment of a racecar.
Groove: The best route around a racetrack. The high groove takes a car closer to the outside wall for most of a lap, while the low groove takes a car closer to the apron.
Happy hour: Not what you think. It’s the last official practice session held before the main race.
Head wrench: Slang for a race team’s crew chief. Tony Eury, Sr. is the head wrench for the 8 car.
Loose: Cars get loose when the rear tires have trouble sticking in the corners. This often causes the machines to fishtail as the rear end swings outward during turns. A minor amount of this can be a good thing at some tracks.
Restrictor-plate: A restrictor-plate is a thin metal plate with four holes that restrict airflow from the carburetor into the engine, and it’s used to reduce horsepower and keep speeds down. Currently, Talladega and Daytona are the only tracks that mandate the device. Without them, speeds could reach more than 210 mph and create a dangerous situation.
Silly season: Slang for the latter part of the current season when rumors begin to swirl concerning driver, crew and sponsor changes. Silly season seems to last year-round now.
Slingshot: A maneuver where a car following the leader in a draft suddenly steers around it, breaking the vacuum and shooting to the front.
Splash ‘n’ go: A quick pit stop that involves putting some fuel in the car and getting out of the pits as quickly as possible.
Stickers: Slang for new tires. The name comes from the manufacturer’s “stickers” that are pasted on the tire’s surface.
Track types: Short tracks are under one mile; intermediate tracks are at least one mile but under two; and speedways are two miles and longer.
Talladega Superspeedway is the largest of all in Winston Cup at 2.66 miles.
Trading paint: A term used to describe aggressive driving involving bumping and rubbing.
Tri-oval: A racetrack that has a “hump” or “fifth turn” in addition to
the standard four corners.
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Cerritos, Calif.
Marital Status: Single
Drives the Cingular Wireless-sponsored Chevy for Richard Childress Racing. Last season Gordon took over the car formerly driven by Mike Skinner, and picked up his first career Winston Cup win in the season-ending event at New Hampshire – a race rescheduled due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Gordon, who has also raced CART and Indy cars, lists boating, mountain biking and water skiing as his hobbies.