Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do It Again: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looks to Repeat Texas Magic from 2000

April 2, 2000 will forever be immortalized as a memorable date for one of racing's perennial names when third-generation driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. captured his first career victory in the NASCAR Cup ranks at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Even if the weather was eerie, filled with clouds and a brooding atmosphere surrounding the treacherous 1.5-mile facility, the scenes from Victory Lane on that day were liken to that of beach-goers enjoying the sun, taking in every aspect of their surroundings with absolute euphoria.

Making that victory even sweeter for fans and the Earnhardt family was witnessing a rare moment of a seven-time Cup champion stepping out of that Intimidator role, embracing his 25-year-old son proudly as an emotional, joyful father. It was a moment that compared to the sentimental cheers and jubilation of the 1998 Daytona 500 Victory Lane - just sweeter and more satisfying for one of NASCAR's most prominent clans.

Regardless of your allegiance, the sight of the Dale Sr. and Junior hugging each other in a confetti-filled winner's circle was about as good as it gets, exemplifying the notion of NASCAR being a family affair sport.

Fast forward to 2010 and a lot has changed since that magical moment in stock car racing. Dale Sr. has since gone off to the racing heavens while his son has been somewhat beleaguered by motorsports purgatory, experiencing an inconsistent streak of success and struggles with his Cup career.

Just as his father accomplished on Feb. 15, 1998, Earnhardt Jr. captured a Daytona 500 win on the same date just six years later. He's also gained a notoriety of being a restrictor plate ace, winning seven events, including a four race winning streak at Talladega (Oct. 2001-Apr. '03). During his years with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, his No. 8 Budweiser Chevy was the pied piper of those 43 car packs.

Also, he's had his share of hard hits, including a heavy crash in the 2002 Fontana race, in which he and Kevin Harvick collided just before the exit off turn four, leaving "Little E" with his worst career injury with a concussion and ankle pain.

Earnhardt Jr. would admit about his injury months after the accident, as he didn't want to endure the criticism or prospects of being called "washed up" by the media.

"I didn't want to tell it until it got better and I started to run better," Earnhardt said in a 2002 USA Today interview with Chris Jenkins. "You just start back at zero and people are going, 'Oh, he's finished, he'll never be the same.'"

Since his tumultuous 2002 campaign, there's been a number of great moments, where it appears as if another Earnhardt might be in the record books as a champion. With 18 victories, 89 top-fives, and 144 top-10s in 370 races, his Sprint Cup career has been fairly respectable.

Driving for one of the most-established teams in all of racing, namely with Hendrick Motorsports, the expectations are for Earnhardt Jr. to step it up, win multiple races and to capture a collection of titles. After all, he's working alongside some of the sport's greatest contemporaries with Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson.

Then there are times when he's perceived as washed-up or a driver that doesn't have the desire to compete at the highest level. Especially with 2009, there were moments where the perception with the No. 88 unit was "three strong Hendrick teams and then the Earnhardt bunch."

Even if the results aren't showing, to say that about any racer is simply insulting, given how competitive and close the fields are, from qualifying rounds to the races on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons. As seen with even the best in the business, like Gordon and Martin at their worst, success is never guaranteed for the elites.

Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway will be one for the sentimental books for Earnhardt Jr., who experienced two of his most memorable NASCAR moments in a span of two years. In 1998, he won his first Nationwide Series race, a memorable moment that truly served as the Kannapolis, NC's "Welcome to NASCAR" moment as a legit contender.

Two years later, he stepped up to the Cup stage and delivered with a dominant performance, leading 106 of the 334 laps enroute to winning the DirecTV 500 in front of the Ft. Worth racing fans who witnessed a historical day.

When CBS Sports' Ken Squier asked Dale Sr. about his son's victory, smiling, he said, "I tell you, he's something else. We knew the kid could do it. This kid, he's worked hard."

It'd be a moment that Earnhardt Jr. may never capture again, but to win a race, especially if it happens this Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, will be about as special as it gets for the grown-up, 35-year old racing veteran.

Coming off of three consecutive seasons of disappointment, the 2010 season has shaped up as a decent campaign thus far through seven events. Sitting 10th in the points battle, his statistics aren't exactly screaming loud, with a top-five and two top-10s. However, the focus to win again has never wavered, working as diligently as ever to prove to fans that he is a true Cup contender.

His communication with crew chief Lance McGrew has improved since last year, even to a point where some of their chemistry has been tested a time or two as seen in Bristol last month. Both appear to be on the same page and the cars seem to get closer to Earnhardt Jr.'s liking on race day.

"Little E" may not be the fresh faced kid from 2000, as he sports a beard that would make Mike Love jealous. Some of his enthusiasm and youthful demeanour has faded, replaced by one that's focused on the racing industry, as well as his JR Motorsports venture in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

However, if the wayback machine's in use and Sunday's race at Texas has a touch of nosalgia, particularly by race's end, it will probably involve Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevy team.

With the way this season's been in producing emotional victories for some of the sport's most established stars, a win by the two-time Nationwide titlist will certainly serve as one of the more popular moments for the sport.

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