Earnhardt looks to continue tradition

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came into the 2001 season thinking the biggest obstacle he would face would be a sophomore slump, endured the loss of the his father in the Daytona 500 and went on to establish himself as one of the sport’s superstars.

Earnhardt finished second in the Daytona 500, but faltered with a first lap crash and 43rd-place finish the next weekend at Rockingham.

He didn’t stay down for long, though.

Junior scored three emotional victories and came back to finish eighth in points. The first victory came when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series returned to Daytona for the Pepsi 400.

The second came at Dover, Del., in the first race after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Earnhardt also won at Talladega in the EA Sports 500 &045; the site of his father’s final victory.

That Talladega victory earned Junior a Winston No Bull 5 $1 million bonus that pushed him to a season winnings total of $5,827,542. That was bolstered by nine top-fives and 15 top-10 finishes, as well as two Bud Poles.

Earnhardt comes into the Aarons 499 at Talladega this weekend off a 5th place finish at Martinsville last weekend and with hopes of continuing the family tradition of winning at the superspeedway started by his father years ago.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his first race at Talladega in Winston Cup racing On July 31, 1983. The older Earnhardt won in Cup racing at the superspeedway 10 times and finished in the top five 22 times.

In Busch racing at the famed track, Earnhardt raced three times, winning one and finishing in the top five on all occasions.

Earnhardt also raced nine times at the track in Iroc races, winning three times and finishing in the top five in seven events.

Before the 2000 season, many thought Earnhardt Jr. was the front-runner for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award.

It didn’t pan out that way frequent challenger Matt Kenseth outran Junior in the Daytona 500, and never let up in his run to the title. Kenseth ultimately scored a 42-point victory in the rookie race.

Earnhardt Jr.’s close relationship with his cousin, car chief Tony Eury Jr., crew chief Tony Eury and his crew, was both a blessing and a curse.

The continuation of his Busch Series success into Winston Cup created an atmosphere that was too distracting and disruptive for the operation’s success to continue.

Junior did have a part in recreating one Winston Cup milestone in 2000 when he competed with his father and older half brother, Kerry Earnhardt, in the Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

That occasion was only the second time that a father had raced against two sons. Lee, Richard and Maurice Petty had previously accomplished the feat.

Junior started 2001 with vivid dreams of a Daytona 500 victory in his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. Despite the idiosyncrasies of his rookie year, Earnhardt has proven beyond any doubt that his name isn’t the only key to success.

The younger Earnhardt began his professional driving career at the age of 17, competing in the Street Stock division at Concord (N.C.) Motorsport Park.

His first race car was a 1978 Monte Carlo that he co-owned with Kerry.

Within two seasons, the young Earnhardt had honed his driving abilities to the point of joining the Late Model Stock Car division.

There, he developed an in-depth knowledge of chassis setup and car preparation, while racing against Kerry and their sister Kelley