The Son Rises
With help in the pit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his first Winston Cup win
The question "Whaaasssuppp?" doesn't generally merit an answer, especially when it's asked by a dozen guys in Budweiser regalia dousing one another with their favorite beer. But since Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew members were so adamant in asking while posing for pictures in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway—and because they'd played such a big role in his Chevy's winning the DirecTV 500—we'll answer them. Whaaasssuppp, guys, is that Sunday's Bud shower was likely to have been the first of many you'll take this season.
The 25-year-old Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup race in his 12th career start, the second shortest time needed to notch a victory in NASCAR's modem era. (Ron Bouchard won in his 11th start, in 1981.) More significant was how Junior got the win. He used none of the sideswiping techniques of his father, who made the name Earnhardt synonymous with intimidation. On Sunday, Junior's Chevy and his crew did most of the work. "I didn't have to do a whole lot," Dale Jr. said. "I'd just point and shoot, and that thing ran. It was easy as pie to drive."
The victory made the elder Earnhardt about as happy as he's likely to be after a race that he didn't win. (He finished seventh.) Not only did he father and raise the driver, but he assembled the son's team as well. "He was pretty excited," said Junior. "He's the car owner, too, so I guess he gets a cut of the check."
Junior led six times for a race-best 106 of 334 laps, but the DirecTV 500, like the three previous Winston Cup events at the Texas Motor Speedway's 1�-mile oval, was full of cautions—12, extending over 62 laps. Only three times did the race go more than 29 laps without a yellow, so every time Earnhardt tried to extend his lead, the field reeled him in. The last 39 laps were run under green, a stretch during which Earnhardt built a 5.920-second victory margin over Jeff Burton, who came from the 37th starting position to finish second.
Earnhardt's team gave him quite a car, one that needed no adjustments during the race, and his crew performed superbly in the pits. While other teams tried to steal track position with two-tire stops, Earnhardt's crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., had his guys change all four. "We stuck with the four-tire plan all day long, because we didn't want to upset the handling of the car," said Earnhardt. "It was the smartest thing we did all day."
As the race wound down and it became apparent that Earnhardt would prevail, he was surprisingly silent. He finally spoke into his radio a few beats after crossing the finish line, and the words were typical Junior. "Holy s—!" he howled before letting out a Texas-sized whoop. He said it out of disbelief at having sent a strong message to the rest of the field. Chances are, a few other drivers were saying the same thing, but for a different reason.
A Bittersweet Debut for Adam
There are bad omens, and then there's the litany of maladies Adam Petty endured in the first two days of preparation for his Winston Cup debut, at Texas Motor Speedway. At the start of the week he missed his flight to Dallas; when he finally arrived his luggage was nowhere to be found, nor was the Cadillac that was supposed to meet him. (A cab to the hotel and a 4:30 a.m. luggage delivery by the airline remedied those difficulties.) "I was, like, Could this week get any worse?" he says.
He got his answer the next day when he and his father, Kyle, appeared for an autograph session at a Sprint PCS store near Fort Worth and had to hunker down in the back room when a pair of tornadoes blew through the area, killing four people and doing $450 million in damage. Understandably, the early-week events had Petty questioning his luck for the weekend. "I was hoping to come down here and run good," he says. "By then I was hoping just to qualify."