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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Young Earnhardt Changes Outlook After Dad's Death

April 13, 2001|SHAV GLICK

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says the death of his father in the Daytona 500 dramatically changed the way he looks at driving race cars.

"Before the accident, I pretty much got my biggest reward from racing by watching my father's reaction when I won, or when I did well," Dale Jr. said by phone from his home in North Carolina during a rare week off for the Winston Cup.

"I started racing more as a hobby than anything else. It wasn't until I began to show an evidence of talent that I started taking it seriously.

"My win last year in The Winston [NASCAR's all-star race] was probably the greatest single moment I ever had with my father. Standing there in victory circle, seeing how impressed he was, was the greatest reward I could imagine."

Dale Jr. became the first rookie to win the race when he passed Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett on the final lap at Lowe's Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.

The senior Earnhardt was never shy about showing his feelings toward his son.

After winning a 125-mile qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway in February 1998, Earnhardt was in the press box, high above the track, talking to reporters while Dale Jr. was testing his Busch Grand National car.

Every couple of seconds, Earnhardt whirled around in his seat and scanned the track, looking for Dale Jr.

"You'll forgive me for not paying attention to you guys," he said with his famous smirk, "but it's the boy's first time at Daytona. I gotta keep an eye on him."

Young Earnhardt qualified third that day but finished 37th. Before the season was over, however, Dale Jr. had won five races and the first of his two Busch series championships.

Junior then moved up to Winston Cup and raced a full season against his father. He won two races and two poles in his rookie season and finished second to Matt Kenseth in rookie standings.

When Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final turn of the final lap of the Daytona 500 last February, life--and his motivation for racing--changed for Dale Jr.

"For a few days, right after the accident, I pondered what motivation I would have." he said. "Like I said, I had raced more to please my father than for myself. I wondered if it could be the same, or would I just not be cutting it anymore."

The week after Daytona, Winston Cup teams were at Rockingham, N.C.

"As soon as I climbed back into the car at the Rock, I knew I had just as much motivation as I ever had, but for different reasons," Junior said.

"My thinking changed from wanting to win for my father; I wanted it more for me. Now when I get on the track, whatever success I have, I get what I get out of it. That's how all the drivers feel, all of us want to win for the enjoyment of the triumph, to stand in victory lane knowing you're the best that day."

The Winston Cup drivers head for Talladega, Ala., and 500 miles around the fastest track in the world, a week from Sunday, followed by another 500 miles on April 29 at California Speedway.

"I'm looking forward to getting back to Fontana," he said. "I won a Busch race there in '98 and it's one track where I've always felt comfortable. It's wide, has different ways to enter the corners and is good for less experienced drivers.

"Last year, we ran with the top 10 or 15 most of the day and came home pretty satisfied." He finished 12th.

"Another reason I like coming to Los Angeles is because before 1997, I was just a country boy from North Carolina who'd never traveled further west than the Mississippi, and my first trip all the way to L.A. is one I'll always remember."

BERNSTEIN DOUBLE

Kenny Bernstein, 56, and his son, Brandon, 28, made drag racing history last Sunday in Las Vegas when they became the first father-son duo to win national finals in the same event.

Kenny, who called it the second-greatest day in his legendary career--behind only his breaking of the 300-mph barrier in a top-fuel dragster in 1992--won the top-fuel crown in the Summit Racing.com Nationals by grabbing No. 1 qualifying honors, setting low elapsed time and top speed of the event.

Brandon, competing in only the fifth event of his career, won the Federal-Mogul crown for alcohol-fuel dragsters. He upset four-time champion Rick Santos in the quarterfinals, handing Santos his first loss of the season.

The Federal-Mogul final was run after the senior Bernstein had won the top-fuel final, putting added pressure on young Brandon.

"Words can't explain how I feel," he said after matching his dad. "To be able to win a race this early in my career is terrific, but to share victory circle with my dad, well, I just can't explain how happy I am."

Brandon is being groomed by his father to move into the seat in the Budweiser King dragster when Kenny retires.

LOOKING AT LONG BEACH

Dario Franchitti, who started sixth and finished sixth, had this to say of last Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

"It was a processional."

RICKY ON A ROLL

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