Dale Jr.'s Debut
Finishing a sweet 16th
By David Fleming
Issue date: June 7, 1999
Moments before the drivers in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 were introduced at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt looked over at his 24-year-old son, Dale Jr., who was making his Winston Cup debut. The father could tell that, after months of hype leading up to what promoters were calling E day, the kid needed something to break the prerace tension. So the old man, a seven-time Winston Cup champ, walked over, elbowed Dale Jr. in the ribs and asked him if he wanted an autograph.
From then on, the younger Earnhardt was loose, though he proceeded with caution once the race began. The defending Busch Grand National champion who had qualified eighth (seven spots in front of his dad) for the 600, Dale Jr. fell to 15th after just two laps and was never a factor. (He even had trouble locating his pit stall during the first yellow flag.) He suffered pangs of self-doubt and a few lapses in concentration but, once he settled in, raced his Chevy Monte Carlo well enough to move up four spots between laps 220 and 300. He finished 16th, three laps behind winner Jeff Burton, and gave himself a C for his debut. "At first I was just trying to get out of everybody's way and not make a fool of myself," Dale Jr. said. "Anytime you get a big promotion, you want to show people you deserved it."
At times Dale Jr. had chafed under the expectations and hype leading up to the 600. He was so relieved after qualifying at midweek that he flopped down on a couch at his house near the Earnhardt garage -- the so-called Garage Mahal -- in Mooresville, N.C., and hollered, "Man, thank god that's over!" The next few nights he spent most of his time playing the video game Knockout King with friends and then on Friday sat in on drums for one number with the alternative rock band Bridge during a concert in Charlotte. Earnhardt wrote the lyrics to the song Eyes to See on Bridge's latest CD. "You can just tell Dale loves being onstage," says band member Terrill Hinson. "He likes the lights shining right on him."
That's good, because it looks as if the hype may get even worse between now and his next Winston Cup race. The blond-haired kid is seen as one of the young drivers who can bridge the gap between the sport's down-home roots and its corporate future. Before the 600, Earnhardt was nearly mobbed by fans as he made his way to the garage. Four hours and 600 miles later, he made a beeline for his father's hauler. Big E had finished sixth and was waiting for Little E.
"He told me I did a good job, that I stayed clean and I stayed out of trouble," said Dale Jr. "So I guess you could say after everything that went on, my debut got the ultimate stamp of approval."
Issue date: June 7, 1999