Ingram: Waltrip’s Book And Earnhardt Jr.’s Pole
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:
I’m one of those happy to see Dale Earhardt Jr. on the pole for the Daytona 500. In the coming week, it will be good for the sport of stock car racing, good for the Earnhardt family and good for the driver himself. I’m also glad to see the well told story of Michael Waltrip in his book about the influence of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on Waltrip’s career.
There may be a connection between Earnhardt Jr.’s pole on Sunday and Waltrip’s book titled “In the Blink of an Eye.” The book chronicles Waltrip’s career with an emphasis on that fateful Sunday in February of 2001.
The details of the career of Earnhardt Jr., by contrast, need little recounting. Earnhardt Jr. is not as good a driver as his father, who was extraordinarily talented when it came to car control. We have gradually learned that over the past decade. But over the last 10 years, the expectations have been the same for the son as the father as a result of grief over the loss of Earnhardt Sr.
I can only hope that the coming week will be a means to finally set the son free of those expectations and allow him to race without the proverbial monkey on his back. This expectation of a possible victory in the Daytona 500 for Earnhardt Jr. is tempered, of course, by the recognition that nobody has recently won at Daytona in February in a race that has lasted at least 500 miles without a bump draft assist.
Long before the bump draft, which has created so many knots in Nomex underwear and underwear in general, there was the side draft, invented by Dale Earnhardt Sr. If only he was here to set the record straight about the double-yellow line, which he suggested, and the beauty of speed wrought by the bump draft.
I was in the Daytona press box in 1998 when Earnhardt Sr., master of the side draft, finally won the
Daytona 500 after 19 years of frustration and shouted, “I’ve finally got that monkey off my back!” I was friendly enough with Earnhardt Sr., having covered his career from his rookie year in 1979 (when he was 28 years old and I was 27), and was glad to see him finally transcend all his bad luck at Daytona. Ultimately, I wrote one biography of Earnhardt Sr. and co-wrote another, mostly out of frustration after seeing books appear from writers who never knew the man.
In the coming season, even if Earnhardt Jr. does not win the Daytona 500, I expect him to transcend his recent years of trial by tribulation and grief. In other words, I expect to see him win a race or two, if not more, and qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
As a result of my friendship and respect for Earnhardt Sr., I first interviewed Earnhardt Jr. during his stint as a driver in what was then known as the Busch Series. (When Kerry Earnhardt first arrived in the Busch Series under less heralded circumstances, I did likewise and sought him out for an interview out of both friendship and respect for his father. I’m glad I did because Kerry, too, is an extraordinary individual if less heralded as a race car driver.)
Prior to a Busch Series race at Darlington in 1999, while interviewing Earnhardt Jr. in the DEI hauler with fellow journalist Rea White, I was struck by two comments. What hit me first, which should now not be a surprise to any fan of NASCAR, was Dale Jr.’s blunt honesty. The other thing that I found totally different from the usual interview with young race car drivers was what he said about sponsorship.
“I don’t ask for all this weight to be put on my shoulders,” he said, speaking of the AC Delco sponsorship and the company’s huge number of employees that backed the DEI team at the time in the Busch Series. He went on to talk about being sick to the stomach on Mondays if he didn’t win for his sponsors and all those employees. These were far more honest-to-the-bone responses to the usual questions posed to a young up-and-coming race car driver, the kind one would never expect to hear from a young man struggling to make his way in the sport and perfectly happy to have a sponsor’s money. But Earnhardt Jr. was in a different situation.
I’m not calling Dale Jr. out. Rather, I’m recalling how he has always lived in a different world as a
result of being his father’s son and the expectations that come with it.
On Sunday, there two were notable aspects to Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole at Daytona. First, he beat his Hendrick Motorsporst teammate Jeff Gordon by virtue of a faster speed documented by Fox Sports’ “ghost tracking” that showed how Earnhardt Jr.’s choice of a different line into Turn 1 made the difference. (It’s not just about the guys who build the cars as much as the drivers would have you believe.)
Second, Earnhardt Jr. won the pole the week after myriad stories in newspapers, online and in magazines have remarked on the 10th annivesary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500 on the last lap. Here again, two memories come to mind. The first is a grief-stricken Earnhardt Jr. crashing out of the race in the opening laps at Rockingham one week following the tragic events in Daytona in 2001. The next is Earnhardt Jr. winning the July race at Daytona in 2001, a triumphant return to the track where his father had been killed.
Earnhardt Jr. went on to win the Daytona 500 in 2004 and five of seven races at the Talladega Superspeedway. But then what happened? As documented at RacinToday.com (http://www.racintoday.com/archives/2588), in retrospect it was clear that team owner Dale Earnhardt Sr. had found a way to produce more horsepower – all perfectly legal under established NASCAR rules – on the restrictor plate tracks. Once the other teams gradually caught up as they inevitably do, the advantage of DEI went away, as did the victories at Daytona and Talladega, along with the money and prestige that went with those victories.
It has been the opinion here that once the other teams caught up with the horsepower advantage enjoyed by DEI, the confidence of Earnhardt Jr., his crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and teammate Michael Waltrip, also a regular winner on restrictor plate tracks, disappeared at other events on the schedule as well.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge and over the dam for Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, whose recently released book skips over the issue of the horsepower advantage enjoyed by DEI during the early years of the decade. But the fact of the matter remains that once the advantage above and below the restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega for DEI created by engine man Richie Gilmore gradually disappeared, so did the team’s over-all ability to win races.
There’s more to it than just horsepower for Earnhardt Jr. Looking back over the last few years,
including disputes with his cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr, there’s that expectation thing for Earnhardt Jr. It has dogged him like no other driver with the exception of Kyle Petty, whose father is the only other seven-time champion.
Having known Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jr., it seems clear that Earnhardt Sr. encouraged and demanded that Earnhardt Jr. live up to expectations. One can surmise that Earnhardt Sr. gruffly motivated his son much in the same way Waltrip recounts how the association with Dale Sr. inspired and motivated him.
Is Earnhardt Jr. as good as his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, winner of five straight championships? That’s like asking if Little E, who has won 18 Sprint Cup races, is as good as his father. But can he continue to win races and compete for a championship?
In the new season, Earnhardt Jr., who won last summer at Daytona in the Nationwide race while driving in his father’s former Wrangler colors with the number 3 emblazoned on the side, may be ready to win again in the Sprint Cup. He was nervous before qualifying, as evidenced by a brief TV interview, indicating how important he thought his impending two laps were going to be.
And, I suspect, he has been angry about Waltirp presenting himself in his book as the guy whom Earnhardt Sr. wanted to win the Daytona 500 in the fateful year of 2001. In this respect, it’s good for Earnhardt Jr. to have competiton as the “chosen one.”
The beauty of racing, of course, is the that it’s not a fairy tale. As Earnhardt Jr.’s losing streak dating back to 2008 has shown, it’s about performance – and occasionally an edge in horsepower or some other technical advantage. We’ll see who has what on Sunday at Daytona. But I’ll be looking for the son of Dale to be in the thick of things.
Quote of the Week: “I’m here to race. I understand the situation. I’m looking forward to seeing how my father’s remembered and honored throughout the week. I’ll enjoy that. I don’t really get into the hypothetical, fairy tale sort of stuff. I just want to focus on my job, what I need to do every single corner, every single lap, what’s best for me at this moment, what gets me closer to Victory Lane on Sunday. That’s all I’m going to concern myself with.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. after winning the pole for the Daytona 500.
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments