American Idol

From Associated Press

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more complicated than he appears.

Sure, Junior loves to party with his friends, hang out with Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down, and appear in commercials -- “They ain’t too much work,” he says. Even he admits he’s “all about fun.”

But Little E is also a serious competitor, ready to make his own mark on the world conquered by his late father.

Going into the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr., who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team his father started, isn’t yet in his old man’s class on the racetrack.


The elder Earnhardt, who died in a last lap crash in the 2001 run of NASCAR’s biggest event, won seven championships during the Winston Cup era of the stock car sport.

The swaggering, mustachioed Intimidator was a presence in NASCAR from the start to the end of his career.

He was Rookie of the Year in 1979, won his first series title the next season and was still a contender when he died.

The last of Earnhardt’s 76 victories came in the fall race at Talladega in 2000, when he charged through the field in the waning laps for a seemingly impossible win.


“There was really nobody else like him,” Junior said wistfully. “He was awesome.”

The younger Earnhardt, beginning his fifth full season in NASCAR’s top series, would love to be like his father -- at least on the racetrack, where he has nine victories in his four seasons in NASCAR’s top series.

Off the track, the two men are nothing alike.

Earnhardt Sr. was a businessman, a family man, a dedicated hunter and fisherman and as likely to spend his rare off days on a tractor pushing dirt around the fields around his sprawling North Carolina home as fishing from his 74-foot boat, “Sunday Money”.


Junior, a very eligible 29-year-old bachelor, would rather spend his time with a pretty girl on his arm backstage at a rock concert, surfing the Web, playing computer games or eating late night fast food with his friends.

“I’m still in my 20s and I enjoy my life,” he said. “I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anybody. I just feel fortunate to have the opportunity to drive race cars and just enjoy it.”

But far more is expected of the driver in whom Budweiser invested $10 million before he had driven in a Cup event.

Junior has built a sizable cadre of fans that includes many of the people who idolized his father as well as a hip, younger crowd that loves it when Earnhardt wears his baseball caps backward and sports roguish stubble on his chin.


So, is Junior concerned that he is letting those people down each year he does not win a championship?

“I used to worry about these things,” he said. “I guess as I get a little bit older and a little bit smarter, it doesn’t worry me as much. I just know I’m trying to get better and be successful.”

Junior won Busch Series championships in 1998 and 1999 before moving up to Cup, where Matt Kenseth beat him out in 2000 for Rookie of the Year.

Last year, while the less popular and considerably quieter Kenseth was dominating the season points on the way to his first championship, Earnhardt also had his best season, finishing third in the points.


As far as Junior is concerned, that improvement showed he is ready to become a champion and step into the leadership role that he believes is expected of him.

“Our team has gotten better every year and I just think that’s going to continue,” he said. “I think we have the equipment and the people to win championships now. Everything just has to come together.”

Three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, now a TV analyst for Fox Sports, loved racing against Dale Sr. and he would love to see Junior reach his huge potential.

“There’s nobody in the sport right now who has more charisma,” Waltrip said. “All Junior needs is maybe a little more concentration and dedication to the job to be a champion.


“His father was very single-minded in whatever he did. I think Junior has other things that sometimes get in the way of his job,” Waltrip said.

Earnhardt Jr. says he’s willing to pay the price for success.

“I’ve learned that no matter how fast you go on the track, you can’t ever think it’s your best lap,” he said.

“In this business, nothing is ever good enough. That’s what makes a champion.”


And he doesn’t regret the attention and expectations that come with being an Earnhardt.

“It’s a lot of fun even though sometimes it’s a little overwhelming,” Junior said. “I could never have anticipated what’s happening now. My name has opened a lot of doors for me.

“I never wished I was somebody else,” he said. “I’m all about making it fun and trying to enjoy it.”





* Site: Daytona International Speedway.

* Schedule: Today


* TV: Channel 4 (10:30 a.m.)

* Track: Tri-oval, 2.5 miles, 31 degrees banking in turns).

* Race distance: 500 miles, 200 laps.

* Last year: Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 for the second time in three years after the day’s second rainstorm shortened the race to 109 laps, 91 short of the scheduled distance.



Daytona 500

A look at today’s lineup and past winners of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway:

*--* RACE LINEUP Pos. Car Driver Make 1 16 Greg Biffle Ford 2 38 Elliott Sadler Ford 3 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 4 40 Sterling Marlin Dodge 5 20 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 6 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 7 42 Jamie McMurray Dodge 8 6 Mark Martin Ford 9 15 Michael Waltrip Chevrolet 10 29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 11 99 Jeff Burton Ford 12 17 Matt Kenseth Ford 13 18 Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 14 01 Joe Nemechek Chevrolet 15 97 Kurt Busch Ford 16 21 Ricky Rudd Ford 17 77 Brendan Gaughan* Dodge 18 2 Rusty Wallace Dodge 19 0 Ward Burton Chevrolet 20 12 Ryan Newman Dodge 21 30 Johnny Sauter* Chevrolet 22 19 Jeremy Mayfield Dodge 23 23 Dave Blaney Dodge 24 09 Johnny Benson Dodge 25 41 Casey Mears Dodge 26 22 Scott Wimmer* Dodge 27 9 Kasey Kahne* Dodge 28 32 Ricky Craven Chevrolet 29 1 John Andretti Chevrolet 30 31 Robby Gordon Chevrolet 31 88 Dale Jarrett Ford 32 4 Kevin Lepage Chevrolet 33 45 Kyle Petty Dodge 34 43 Jeff Green Dodge 35 25 Brian Vickers* Chevrolet 36 10 Scott Riggs* Chevrolet 37 49 Ken Schrader Dodge 38 5 Terry Labonte Chevrolet PROVISIONAL 39 24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 40 7 Jimmy Spencer Dodge 41 14 Larry Foyt Dodge 42 50 Derrike Cope Dodge 43 133 Mike Skinner Chevrolet DID NOT QUALIFY 44 172 Kirk Shelmerdine Ford 45 90 Andy Hillenburg Ford *Rookie



*--* PAST WINNERS Year Driver Make Avg. mph Start 2003 M. Waltrip Chevrolet 133.870 4 2002 W. Burton Dodge 142.971 19 2001 M. Waltrip Chevrolet 161.783 19 2000 D. Jarrett Ford 155.669 1 1999 J. Gordon Chevrolet 161.551 1 1998 D. Earnhardt Chevrolet 172.712 4 1997 J. Gordon Chevrolet 148.295 6 1996 D. Jarrett Ford 154.308 7 1995 S. Marlin Chevrolet 141.710 3 1994 S. Marlin Chevrolet 156.931 4 1993 D. Jarrett Chevrolet 154.972 2 1992 Da. Allison Ford 160.256 6 1991 E. Irvan Chevrolet 148.148 2 1990 D. Cope Chevrolet 165.761 12 1989 D. Waltrip Chevrolet 148.466 2 1988 B. Allison Buick 137.531 3 1987 B. Elliott Ford 176.263 1 1986 G. Bodine Chevrolet 148.124 2 1985 B. Elliott Ford 172.265 1 1984 C. Yarborough Chevrolet 150.994 1 1983 C. Yarborough Pontiac 155.979 8 1982 B. Allison Buick 153.991 7 1981 R. Petty Buick 169.651 8 1980 B. Baker Oldsmobile 177.602 1 1979 R. Petty Oldsmobile 143.977 13 1978 B. Allison Ford 159.730 33 1977 C. Yarborough Chevrolet 153.218 4 1976 D. Pearson Mercury 152.181 7 1975 B. Parsons Chevrolet 153.649 32 1974 R. Petty Dodge 140.894 2 1973 R. Petty Dodge 157.205 7 1972 A.J. Foyt Jr. Mercury 161.550 2 1971 R. Petty Plymouth 144.462 5 1970 P. Hamilton Plymouth 149.601 9 1969 L. Yarborough Ford 157.950 19 1968 C. Yarborough Mercury 143.251 1 1967 Ma. Andretti Ford 146.926 12 1966 R. Petty Plymouth 160.627 1 1965 F. Lorenzen Ford 141.539 4 1964 R. Petty Plymouth 154.334 2 1963 T. Lund Ford 151.566 12 1962 F. Roberts Pontiac 152.529 1 1961 M. Panch Pontiac 149.601 4 1960 J. Johnson Chevrolet1 24.740 9 1959 L. Petty Oldsmobile 135.521 15




* Greg Biffle won the pole last Sunday with a fast lap of 188.387 mph. Elliott Sadler will start on the outside of the front row after finishing second. The rest of the field was determined at Thursday’s twin 125 qualifying races.... Only three racers have won the Daytona 500 in consecutive years, most recently Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995.... The winner of the Daytona 500 has gone on to win the series title seven times, most recently Jeff Gordon in 1997.... Buddy Baker holds the record for fastest winning speed (177.602 mph in 1980) while Junior Johnson has the record for the slowest (124.740 mph in 1960).

* Next race: Subway 400, Feb. 22, Rockingham, N.C.