Junior's goal is all 500 miles at Pocono

Updated: July 29, 2004, 4:56 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

John Andretti
Andretti
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
Once again Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have a safety net on pit road when the Nextel Cup series goes racing. This weekend at the Pocono 500, that safety net will be part-time Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver John Andretti.

But this time, Junior hopes he won't have to use his backup.

"I couldn't have finished 300 laps (at New Hampshire last weekend), but I'm going to do all I can to get through this and be ready to go this week," Junior said a few days after having Martin Truex Jr. relieve him after 60-some laps and finish 31st.

"I owe it to my team. They've worked so hard for so many years to put us in a place where we're in position to grab a championship, and I owe it to my sponsors and especially my fans."

But if the second-degree burns Junior suffered in Sonoma, Calif., while practicing for a road race during his off-weekend kept him out of one of the shortest races of the year, they certainly threaten to hamper his ability to perform over one of the longest.

Five-hundred miles at Pocono, after all, is no walk in the park.

"The plan is to rest and take it easy this week so I'll be ready to do 500 miles Sunday," Junior said. "The burns heal a little more every day, but I'm still in a lot of pain."

He said he felt better when he strapped himself into the car last weekend, but he's accutely aware of how bad it might hurt this Sunday.

"I felt pretty good inside the car," he said, "but I'm going to need all my strength. Pocono can wear you out even when you're 100 percent healthy."

Meanwhile, Junior's predicament has drawn a wide array of responses from within the garage.

Junior's substitution move last weekend is perfectly legal under long-time NASCAR rules, and while some were happy to see that Junior at least tried to race as much of the race as he could, others questioned why he put himself in the predicament in the first place.

"I choose not to drive in other series because I don't want to get hurt," Jeremy Mayfield said. "I have a lot of responsibilities and priorities with my Cup deal, so I choose not to jeopardize that and put that on the line. I think the other drivers should think about that."

Still, Junior said the support from within the organization has been immense, and has him geared up for this weekend -- as well as the remainder of the season.

"Everyone has been really supportive of me and that means a lot," he said. "Anybody can be cool and get along great when you're winning races and kicking butt, but when things don't go right, it's important to have that support behind me."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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