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Dale Earnhardt Jr. started his Winston Cup rookie season like an IPO of an internet company stock. With much anticipated excitement, his performance as a Winston Cup driver soared to a peak in the middle of May. Unfortunately, Junior's stock value has faded somewhat in the past four months, as the Winston Cup "market" has adjusted itself. "Little E" is now experiencing first hand the sink-or-swim level of competition in the NASCAR Shark Tank.
On June 11, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a rookie driver being showered with accolades by the racing media. He had won races at Richmond and Texas, and earned himself over a half million dollars by winning The Winston at Lowes. He had managed five top-ten finishes - not bad for the first half of a rookie season. In his first 15 races, he piloted his number 8 Budweiser Chevrolet to an average 17th place finish. He was even featured on the cover of Inside NASCAR magazine. But could the rookie driver keep up that amazing success?
What has precipitated the mid-season turn around? Probably nothing much he did or didn't do. He is still the same driver he was back in February at Daytona. His change of fortune may be the result of increased driver competition. Winston Cup Championships are won or lost during the second half of the season. The drive for the title is similar to a tank full of hungry sharks. You either eat, or the competition eats you. It's also like a popular game I played as a kid called King of the Hill. The object is to knock people off the hill until you are the last one standing. Junior may just be an innocent bystander in the intensified competition crossfire. The second half of the year is when the seasoned veterans usually rise to the occasion. Guys like Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. come to the track clothed in battle armor.
The extremely high level of competition in October and November eventually thins out the herd. Drivers scratch and claw for positions and points that could affect their chances of claiming the crown. Cars are pushed to the limit, parts break, tires go flat, and accidents take place. This is what happened to Junior this past week in Martinsville, where he looked more like a gladiator than a driver. He was involved in several altercations, but during his last crash he hit the wall so hard his car burst into flames and bent his steering wheel. He made it out relatively unscathed, but it may have been the hardest lick he has ever taken. "I saw a tire sticking out there with no fender on it and I climbed all over it and went up in the air", said Earnhardt. "It was one hell of a hit, but I'm all right. It's a lot of fun to get out there and beat and bang. This kind of stuff is going to happen. We pushed real bad at the start of the race. I wish we could have stayed out there all day and had a little more fun."
Watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a race weekend reveals a lot about his character as a driver and a person. Earlier this year at Watkins Glen, I saw Junior wreck his car in a practice session abbreviated by rain. The rear of the car was severely crushed, still holding pieces of the Styrofoam blocks that he had plowed into. The car was rushed back into the garage area, and it was time to get the backup car ready for action. Almost frantically, someone got under the front end of the car to switch out the motor from the practice car to the backup car. A hoard of media people began to congregate around the damaged car. Then I realized why they were so interested in the activity. It was none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. working underneath the car! Everyone watched the star Winston Cup rookie, laying in a large puddle of water, trying desperately to free a motor from its mounts in enough time to get the backup car prepped before qualifying. This type of dedication and love of racing will serve him well in his career. It certainly earned my respect for him as a driver.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. may not be competing for a position in the top ten points in his rookie year, but he is still a very good driver on a very good team. The prospects for his success in his sophomore year and beyond are excellent. Dale has many qualities that a championship driver needs. He has the drive, dedication and the energy needed to compete at a high level.
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