Junior looking for victory at place where his legend began

4/4/2008 - NASCAR

FORT WORTH , Texas -- Dale Earnhardt pulled his famous black No. 3 car beside Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway and waited anxiously for his not-so-famous son to complete his first victory lap in what was then the Winston Cup Series.

The elder Earnhardt was so excited, arguably more than after his win in the 1998 Daytona 500, that at one point he threw his arms around track president Eddie Gossage and screamed, "Can you believe this Gossage? Can you believe this?"

As the 25-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolled to a stop on the checkered flag tiles, the man known as "The Intimidator" leaned into the window to offer fatherly advice.

"He said, 'I'm proud of you. I love you. Soak this up and take it all in. It doesn't happen very often. I'm leaving you, so find a way home,' " Gossage recalled. "Then he patted him on the chest real hard and left.

"He wanted to make sure Junior knew this moment was all about him and he didn't want to get in the way."

Nine months later Earnhardt left his son for good, suffering a fatal head injury on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 as he blocked for his son and Michael Waltrip while they battled for the win.

Since then, it's definitely been all about Earnhardt Jr.

He's been NASCAR's most popular driver five straight years, a streak that isn't about to end this season. He's dominated headlines, from his 2004 Spring Break trip to Florida that reportedly included naked, co-ed hot tub parties to his feud with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt to his 2007 decision to leave the company his father built for Hendrick Motorsports.

In all likelihood it'll be all about Earnhardt again this weekend as he returns to Texas Motor Speedway -- not only the site of his first Cup win, but his first Nationwide Series (then Busch) win -- looking to end the longest winless drought (68 races) of his career. And he will do it from the pole after turning the fastest lap in qualifying Friday.

But Earnhardt isn't as frustrated over this streak as one might think. Sure, he'd like to get his first victory for HMS behind him so fans and reporters will stop asking about it. And there's no better place for him to do it than the Fort Worth area, where he has had more monumental moments than anywhere on the circuit. Even his press conference to announce new sponsors AMP and National Guard was in nearby Dallas.

But winning a race isn't nearly as important to Earnhardt as making the championship chase and contending for a title that his father won seven times.

"I'm hungry for people to take notice we're running good," said Earnhardt, who led a race-high 106 laps in edging Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte here in 2000. "Wins will come. They'll come. I just hope everybody notices how well we've been running."

They've noticed. Gossage said he believes that's one reason television ratings are up. Or, as he stated so well, "As Dale Jr. goes, so does NASCAR."

Aside from finishing 40th at California due to an engine failure, the kid once known as Little E is off to the best start of his career outside of the 2004 season, when he had two wins and five finishes of 11th or better in the first six races to be third in points.

He's had five finishes of ninth or better and three top-5s to rank fourth in points, 69 behind leader Burton. He had only seven top-5s and 12 top-10s all of last season at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"I surely am not going to make an assessment on why one particular driver, one particular team, hasn't won other than to tell you it's very difficult [to win]," Burton said. "Junior has run really well this year. He's been probably the top performing Hendrick car as seen by me. Their wins are coming. There's no question about that."

Earnhardt hopes so.

"I daydream about getting that first win, and I would have loved to have gotten a clock [at Martinsville]," said Earnhardt, coming off a sixth-place finish at Martinsville after leading a race-high 146 laps.

"Trust me. Crew chief Tony [Eury] Jr. and the guys are disappointed with it. They saw that car run up front all day and they wanted to finish there. We tried, but, again, the wins will come."

The ink barely was dry on Earnhardt's contract with HMS when Eury said he would be disappointed with anything less than six wins this season.

He still believes that is possible.

"There's plenty of time," said Eury, reminding that 30 races remain. "If you run in the top five long enough you're going to get them. We're pretty tickled right now. We've run strong. We just need a little more to get there."

But fans aren't as patient as Eury and Earnhardt. Many came down hard on Eury for not pitting to take tires in the closing laps at Bristol.

"They want everything," Eury said. "They want the world. You just get what you can. Sometimes it ain't good enough. They're wanting to win as much as we are. You learn to adapt to it. It's out there and it ain't going away."

Eury was Earnhardt's car chief in 2000 when they put the No. 8 car of DEI into Victory Lane for the first time. He remembers the relief in Earnhardt's face because he'd won on the same level as his father. He remembers the sheer joy in Earnhardt's eyes as he and his father celebrated with a big bear hug.

He remembers going back to Earnhardt's home in Mooresville, N.C., and hanging out until three or four in the morning as the team had done after each Nationwide Series win.

"We were thinking we could come in here and conquer the world," Eury said. "Seven races in, we weren't supposed to be winning races. We were like, 'OK, we can do this. This is easy.'"

Not really. In the 285 races since, Earnhardt has only 16 wins, which is a victory once every 17 races. While many drivers would kill for that, it hasn't been enough to keep up with the hype.

"I've got to give Junior a ton of credit for carrying the burden he's carrying," Gossage said.

Richard Childress, who won six of his seven titles with the elder Earnhardt, said he still believes Earnhardt has a chance to achieve greatness. He believed that well before Texas of 2000.

"You knew Dale Jr. had it from watching him run the Busch Series," he said. "You knew it was just a matter of time before he won a Cup race."

But nobody really knew of the significance of that day in Texas. Not Earnhardt. Not fellow competitors. Not the crowd, which roared with approval but not nearly as loudly as they would have had the No. 3 won.

"They knew they were seeing history," Gossage said. "But you've got to realize the Junior Nation wasn't what it is today. So many people that are a part of the Junior Nation today were Dale Earnhardt Sr. fans and his career was still going well, so they didn't make their move to Junior until later on."

The elder Earnhardt was more worried about how he got Sr. attached to his name than how popular his son might become.

"I'm not Dale Sr.," he said the day before the 2000 Texas race. "I'm Dale Earnhardt. He's Dale Jr., but how the hell I ever got to be Dale Sr., I'll never know."

Matter of time
Gossage was taking Earnhardt Jr. to the Speedway Club for the traditional champagne in 2000 when his passenger pulled out his cell phone to call a friend.

"He was incredibly excited," Gossage said. "You could tell just the load had been lifted off of his shoulders. I don't think any of us have a handle on what a burden that is to carry the name Dale Earnhardt.

"Even if he never won again, he could say he reached a goal that was afforded to him in fulfilling the legacy of being Dale Earnhardt Jr."

Gossage spent most of this week saying Earnhardt was his pick to win Sunday's Sprint Cup race, and with sound reasoning. In 11 starts at the 1.5-mile track, Earnhardt has seven top-10 finishes.

Only twice has he finished outside the top 14, in 2002 when he was in an accident while running second and last season when he had a blown engine.

Gossage also believes HMS, winless after recording 18 victories a year ago, is due. And since Earnhardt is running better than the other Hendrick drivers, he figured this might be the time and place for both to end their streaks.

Even if Earnhardt doesn't win, most agree it's only a matter of time before he does.

"He got off to a quick start and won those two non-points races at Daytona," said two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, referring to Earnhardt's win in the Budweiser Shootout and 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona. "He's all around it. I'm sure he's eager to get it done, but I don't see him being impatient."

Neither does four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

"I've only sensed excitement," he said. "I mean, he's pumped up and excited and just, you know, happy to be running good and being competitive."

Earnhardt is happy, as happy as he's been during his Cup career. Oh, the circus around him remains big -- perhaps bigger than it was when his image was much different with Budweiser as his sponsor.

"The Christian side of things, you won't ever catch them wearing a Bud hat," Eury said. "We had a preacher coming up [recently] saying, 'Hey, can I get a hat?' We never had that before."

Gossage can only imagine the excitement the crowd will show if Earnhardt wins this weekend. He predicts it'll be much greater than it was in 2000.

"It's going to be Times Square on New Year's Eve times 10," he said. "It's going to be huge."

The only thing that could make it bigger was if the elder Earnhardt was there to share it.

"You're more proud of your children's accomplishments than you are of your own accomplishments," Gossage said. "I think he was more proud of Junior that day eight years ago than he was of anything he ever accomplished. To know that he made it, that he has arrived.

"That was really a cool moment."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.