Junior hasn't tamed home track
CONCORD, N.C. -- He's won multiple times at the fastest and biggest tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Daytona and Talladega, as well as at least once on mid-size tracks like Phoenix, Texas and Dover. Short tracks? He's tamed those, too, having won twice so far at Richmond.
But one place continues to confound Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Lowe's Motor Speedway. The 1 ½-mile superspeedway, which Earnhardt considers his "home track," hasn't been very homey up to now, keeping the native of nearby Kannapolis, N.C., from the winner's circle time and time again.
"It's one of the first racetracks that I was able to go to as a young kid and see my dad race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I've seen a lot of races there, a lot of history there, I've seen a lot of races and a lot of great things happen there. Before I even started driving, it was a pretty important, pretty prominent racetrack for me. I always had it on my list for racetracks that I've wanted to win at and I consider it one of the biggest races of the season, obviously."
LMS threw Earnhardt Jr. a bone when he earned his first Winston Cup pole in 2000, but since then, no matter how hard the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has tried, he still keeps looking at Victory Lane from the outside.
But with three wins in the first 11 races of 2004 and leading the points more often than not thus far, Junior has his sights set on winning Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, the longest and most grueling race on the Nextel Cup circuit.
"It really would be special," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's the longest race of the season and whether it be at Daytona or Charlotte, Texas, Indianapolis, whatever, every big event of the season has its own little twists and its own piece of history to it.
"The 600 is one of the more historic races that's lined up right next to the Southern 500, if you will, in history within the sport. It really means a lot to me and I think a lot of the drivers, a lot of the veterans really understand the importance of that race. So, it's really a big deal and it's hard to win. It's hard to get a good competitive car, over such a long period of time and be strong all night long. We've run good in the race, but hadn't been able to put it together at the end, so hopefully we've got what it takes this year."
In the first third of the season, Earnhardt Jr. has shown he has what it takes to fulfill what was the preseason prediction of many: namely, to win his first Nextel Cup championship. Consdier, he's led the points for six of the first 11 races, including the last four weeks; started the season with a win in the Daytona 500; leads all drivers with three wins and continues to maintain a lead -- albeit a close one -- over his closest pursuers -- teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and last season's champion Matt Kenseth.
But Earnhardt Jr. is also coming into the middle third of the season, the meat of the schedule if you will, and he knows he has to turn things up a few notches, particularly this weekend at Charlotte.
"Well, I think that is pretty obvious, it is to me anyways, that we are struggling at the mile-and-a-half tracks," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We did get a win in Atlanta. I don't know what the difference is between say Atlanta and Kansas and Homestead and tracks like that. We can run great at Atlanta and we go to Texas and we're just off a little bit there, but seem to get a top five even though we're struggling a little bit every time we go there. But we'll go to Kansas or Homestead and Vegas and California and we're not hooked up. The car is not competitive at all.
"We're trying our hardest to try and fix and learn and get the car tuned back in. We've been to Kentucky, which is a track that's very similar to these tracks and test there as much as we can if we have a weak spot. Obviously every team's not perfect. There's other things I like to see improve. There are things that are inconsistent; we always could be better."
As Earnhardt Jr. has continued to mature as a driver and enjoy greater success, he's also become a microcosm of NASCAR and Nextel Cup racing. Not only is he considered the sport's most popular driver, he's also become a foundation upon which the sport is building upon as it continues to grow. He has become the sport's most recognizable figure, the Michael Jordan of stock car racing, to borrow an old saying.
Yet as important as Earnhardt Jr. has become to Nextel Cup and NASCAR, he somehow hasn't let it skew his vision. Like his father, he considers himself just an average guy who just happens to know how to wheel a race car pretty good.
"I don't see myself as making that big of a difference," Earnhardt Jr. said. "The sport is going where it's going without Dale Earnhardt Jr. I don't think I'm the lead locomotive here. I never have. There are a lot of drivers and a lot of personality that make up the sport and make up powerful, colorful and whatever the sport is. The thing is what powers the sport and what fuels the sport is the press, the media, the networks, the coverage, all the free advertisement we get from racing every weekend people tuning in and people latching on to the sport for the first time. That's going to happen no matter who's driving in the sport.
"I feel pretty fortunate that I came around when I did. (But) I would have liked to be around during the 70's and known what it was like to race back then when it was a lot simpler. With the way the sport is now and how exciting it is, it's really awesome to be a part of it at this time, too. There were personalities and the sport really had a lot of the same things it has now. It had those things in the past; it just wasn't quite as publicized. It's just the way it's working out."
But even though he's closing in on 30 years of age later this year, is a multi-millionaire star athlete, is a fan favorite and could someday even surpass his own father as NASCAR's most popular driver ever, Earnhardt Jr. quickly shows a side not too many people see, that being his shy side.
"(The attention is) overwhelming," he said. "I guess it's embarrassing, flattering if you will, to be considered (like) that. When I was 18 years old, that definitely wasn't what I was aiming for. I didn't even have the vision or foresight to see that and target that. Things have fallen into place one after another and circumstances and situations have evolved and here we are."
And Sunday night, under the bright lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Victory Lane is the latest place the fair-skinned redhead hopes to be. On his home track, no less, on his own terms and succeeding in his own inimitable way.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
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