|2001 review: Three
wins - all since July - provided Earnhardt Jr.'s
team a strong burst of momentum down the stretch
and his team became much more consistent.
2002 outlook: The added experience and strong
second-half performance last season leave Earnhardt
Jr. is a good position to battle for the championship.
Earnhardt won the NASCAR Grand National series
championship in 1998 and 1999.
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 -- 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.
Before the 2000 season, many thought Dale 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'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
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 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.
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, Dale
Earnhardt Jr. 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. With his
father's guidance and his own experience on the
short tracks throughout the Carolinas, he was
ready to take a bold step forward.