Pressure on Junior only mounts

Updated: February 21, 2004, 4:51 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Junior
Junior
Winning the Daytona 500 was the best thing that's happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s racing career, and quite possibly his life.

Not only did he beat 42 other drivers to the finish line this past Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. also defeated critics who said he'd never win the biggest stock car race in the world -- or on a higher level, that he'd never be able to hold a candle behind the wheel to his legendary father.

But in the whole scheme of things, the inherent pressure to win that came before, during and after Daytona will be but a blip on the radar screen by season's end. If Junior thought he went through pressure at Daytona, he hasn't seen anything yet.

For with one of the two goals he came into the season with now achieved, the other one will carry the weight of Daytona multiplied by 35.

Winning the championship -- or even battling just to be in contention -- will prove to be much harder for Junior than his Daytona triumph.

Not only does Earnhardt have to worry about holding onto the points lead for the first time in his Cup career -- which he could very easily and quickly lose with a poor finish in Sunday's Subway 400 -- he also has to worry about NASCAR's new-fangled "Chase for the Championship."

In essence, Junior has to win two championships this season. With Daytona in his rearview mirror, Earnhardt now has to do battle for 25 more weeks to show he's not only worthy of winning the championship, but also to lay down a standard that will carry him through the final 10-race "Chase."

Quite simply, Junior has to become the most dominating driver on the circuit this season if he is to win his first Cup championship.

There will be pressure like he's never seen, unmerciful criticism if his inspiring Daytona triumph turns to a mediocre season (just ask 2002 Daytona winner Ward Burton about that), and Earnhardt will be faced with so much attention and glare from NASCAR's media spotlight that it may seem as if he's the only driver in Nextel Cup racing at times.

On top of all that, Earnhardt has to learn to be a different type of driver this season. He can't continue to be the one-dimensional winner that he has evolved into during his five years of Cup competition.

For Earnhardt to prove his win at Daytona was not a fluke, he has to go for the checkered flag at every place he visits this season, from Martinsville to Bristol, Texas to New Hampshire, and Michigan to Sonoma.

Don't believe it?

Look at Earnhardt's 10 career wins thus far in Cup racing. Six of those wins have come in restrictor plate races at both Daytona (twice) and Talladega (four times) superspeedways.

A seventh win, at Texas, which was his first as a Cup driver back in 2000, falls into the same Daytona/Talladega category by virtue of the speeds generated around the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, which is the second-fastest non-restrictor plate track on the circuit behind Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That leaves single wins on the one-mile Dover (2001) and Phoenix (last season) ovals, as well as a short-track triumph at Richmond (2000).

Because Earnhardt's record of wins are so heavily weighted to tracks that either have speeds artificially controlled by restrictor plates or where speed takes precedence over all else, he has to develop into a much more multi-faceted race winner in 2004 if he hopes to have any shot at the title.

A win may be a win, as they say in NASCAR, but when a driver can win at all types of facilities either in a particular season or in a career, it serves to verify his particular greatness. That type of driver doesn't get pigeonholed as Earnhardt has become, known primarily as a restrictor plate racer.

Look at a guy like Jeff Gordon. He's won on virtually every type of racetrack that NASCAR visits. That's a good part of the reason he's a four-time Cup champ, and is a good bet to add to that total another time or two or three before he finally hangs up his firesuit for good.

Then there's a guy like Rusty Wallace. Even with 54 career Cup wins, the driver of the No. 2 Dodge is still saddled with the reputation of being a short-track racer. For despite all the success he's had in his career, including winning the championship in 1989, Wallace has never won at Daytona or Talladega. Sure, he's won at other high-speed tracks such as Michigan and Atlanta, but they don't quite compare to the two true superspeedways on the circuit.

That's why Earnhardt Jr. has to go for the jugular beginning with Sunday's race at Rockingham, N.C.

If he is to have any chance of winning the title this season -- short of some freaky quirk that may occur during the final 10-race "Chase," Earnhardt has to lay down the gauntlet to prove he intends to be the most dominating driver in Nextel Cup this season.

He can't drive like Matt Kenseth did last season, being happy to ride a train of consistency rather than wins.

For Earnhardt to prove his win at Daytona was not a fluke, he has to go for the checkered flag at every place he visits this season, from Martinsville to Bristol, Texas to New Hampshire, and Michigan to Sonoma.

He needs to add triumphs across all platforms to his Daytona victory, from the shortest of short tracks to mid-range tracks to road courses.

How many times have you heard a Nextel Cup driver say, "It's only one race. There's a whole bunch left to go."

With the joy and excitement of Daytona now behind him, Junior not only has to look forward to Sunday's race at the Rock, but also to make sure his championship hopes don't drop like a rock, either. He can't relax for even a second, and he seems to know this.

"Even though we devote a lot of effort and time to restrictor-plate tracks, Rockingham is a track we've emphasized as a place where we need to improve if we're gonna win a championship," Earnhardt said. "We made a big commitment, as a team, to work hard on improving our weak spots.

"I used to come there with a bad attitude, and it seemed to set the tone for the whole team. I think it's different now. If anything, winning the Daytona 500 gave us more confidence than we already had as a team, and that's probably the one thing we lacked heading into Rockingham in the past.

"I don't know if anything we do at Rockingham will prove that (this is his year to win the Cup title). The season is so dang long. But I'd like to go in there and get a top-10 finish if we could. That would be great. I feel like we're definitely geared up for that and can make it happen."

Despite the fact that Junior not only proved he can win the Daytona 500, let alone the masterful way he held on in the final 19 laps to do so, some critics have suggested the outcome was fixed, if for no other reason than he's an Earnhardt.

But in the same way he came into this season with a more mature outlook, Earnhardt didn't let that buzz rankle him. He knows he'll likely continue to face the same thing the rest of the season.

Instead of ranting and raving or chuckling and dismissing the issue totally out of hand, Junior addressed it head on.

"I think it's a shame that people don't have anything better to do," Earnhardt said. "But I guess you'll have that with anything anytime somebody succeeds with anything. There are going to be some doubters and some people that criticize it no matter what.

"Some people just can't leave well enough alone and enjoy their own life. They've got to try to mess and screw with somebody else's. I get upset about it, but there isn't much I can do about it except to keep on winning and keep on enjoying my own life."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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