Pepsi 400 Qualifying Washed Out


Friday, July 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the leader of NASCAR's new generation. He's also a confused twentysomething, still feeling his way after being thrust into such a demanding role.

Preparing to defend his title at the Pepsi 400 on Saturday, Earnhardt, 27, sees himself as a star without star's credentials, a businessman without a businessman's experience, and a great driver without a great driver's record.

``I am the son of one of the greatest drivers,'' Earnhardt said Thursday, when qualifying was rained out and postponed until Friday. ``I'm not quite one of the greatest drivers yet.''

But he gets treated like one.

It's the treatment he began receiving soon after Feb. 18, 2001, the day his father slammed into the wall and died on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The NASCAR community was devastated. Within days _ hours, really _ fans looked to Little E as the one to carry The Intimidator's mantle and make them whole again.

Black gave way to red-and-black as the dominant color scheme in the grandstand. The No. 3 gave way to the No. 8 as the favorite number. Earnhardt Jr. found himself transformed from an entertaining sideshow to the man in the spotlight.

Earnhardt's storybook win at Daytona last July _ a spinetingling, come-from-behind victory in the first race back at the track that took his dad's life _ only served to cement his role, to erase any doubt over whether he was worthy of all the adulation.

Hardly anyone noticed _ or seemed to care _ that his overall race results were average. He finished eighth in the points standings last year. He stands in 16th place midway through 2002, and hasn't finished higher than 12th since his April 21 victory at Talladega.

Recently, he and his stepmother, Teresa, were ranked fifth in a list of the most powerful figures in NASCAR published by the Charlotte Observer. Earnhardt appreciated the honor, but wonders if he's really deserving.

``That probably meant more to me than winning any race or any championship,'' Earnhardt said. ``But, we win championships to achieve power, to achieve authority. Hopefully, as I get several more years under my belt, a few more people will find me a little more credible. We'll find out.''

Although his fans mostly want to see him win on the track, Earnhardt knows it's more than just about what goes on inside the car.

He described his role at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the multimillion-dollar conglomerate his father and stepmother created, as undefined and somewhat uncomfortable.

He's an employee more than an owner, as is made clear by the contract extension he's currently studying. He often wonders what it would be like to race for another team, another family.

``I just want to make sure I'm with the right program,'' he said. ``Some people may find that a little conceited, but I feel like I, like any other race car driver, have to think about those things.''

Still, he seems resigned to his place at the company _ as the future, the big-name driver, but maybe not the key decision-maker.

``I don't think I'll ever to be able to fulfill a fraction of the role my dad played in the company,'' he said.

Next year, he plans to field a Busch Grand National team. Originally, he wanted to go at it on his own, but Teresa persuaded him to keep the team under the sheltering wings of DEI.

His goal is to find out what it takes to be an owner, but do it without sacrificing anything on the driving front.

Owner. Driver. Businessman.

Those were three roles his father balanced perfectly through a generation of NASCAR dominance _ on the track, at the souvenir stand, in the board room.

Just as he admits he's still learning the business side, Little E is quick to admit the driving portion hasn't been up to standards.

So far this year, he's an outsider looking in on one of the closest points races in recent memory.

He's considered the prohibitive favorite at Daytona, mainly because he has won three of the last four restrictor-plate races here and at Talladega.

Asked what it would take for anyone else to win come Saturday, Kyle Petty said, ``For the DEI cars to have trouble. You can't argue with their success on the speedway programs.''

Earnhardt loves being a favorite, but in his growingly confusing world, he doesn't know what to make of it. In this upside-down season, he's run well at tracks where he normally doesn't, and he's struggled at tracks where he normally runs well.

``I've wanted to come in here with the attitude that they're going to have to take it away from me if they want it,'' Earnhardt said. ``But with the luck we've had, I'm looking over my shoulder.''

And everyone is looking at him.

He is arguably the most recognizable figure among NASCAR's ever-growing fan base. Someday, he hopes he'll have earned that honor based on his performance, and not just his name.

``I'd like to be in the next 50 greatest drivers of NASCAR book they put out,'' Earnhardt said. ``Maybe when they revise that thing, they can plug a few out, and put me in there.''