When Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to Daytona in January for preseason testing of his Chevy, he told anyone who'd listen that he believed 2003 would be his breakout season. He had overhauled his crew, with whom he had occasionally clashed with in '02, and more important, he sounded as if he was rededicating himself to racing. Junior has been true to his word, lifting his team into championship contention for the first time in his four-year Winston Cup career.
"I take my job a lot more seriously now than when I started [in 2000]," says Earnhardt, who was second to Matt Kenseth in the points standings heading into Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma. "I've matured a little bit, and I'm more focused. All of this has had a positive effect on our entire team."
Earnhardt's rebirth actually began late last season. After recovering from a severe concussion that he suffered in a late-April crash at California Speedway, he had six top 10 finishes in the last eight races. During that stretch he showed, for the first time in his career, that he could run well on all types of tracks, and that consistency has carried into 2003. Tough to beat on superspeedways—in April he won a record fourth straight race at Talladega—Earnhardt this year has been solid on short tracks (third place at Martinsville in April) and intermediate tracks (second at Las Vegas in March.)
All the while, Junior has done a lot of growing up, which might be the biggest reason he's finally stepping out of the shadow of his renowned father. He says he's cut back on midweek partying and that he spends more time at the shop than ever before. Those may not sound like critical issues come race day, but they've helped transform Little E into a mini Intimidator.