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Archive for Thursday, October 26, 2000

Earnhardt Jr. still in slump

Rookie driver fading fast

October 26, 2000

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. rode onto the Winston Cup scene on an eight-horse hitch of Clydesdales. Now, as his rookie season comes to a close, he's limping away.

A five-month slump and a propensity to party too much has taught NASCAR's newest golden boy that not everything is easy.

"It's been surprising how it just comes and goes," he said.

Since rising to the top of stock car racing in May with a stunning victory in NASCAR's all-star race, his season has been on a steady decline. He hasn't had a top-10 finish since June.

The 26-year-old driver has been 31st or worse four times, and the lowest point of the season came Sunday in Rockingham, N.C., when he had to use owner points for the first time to make the race. He started 37th, was caught up in an early accident, and finished 34th.

"I felt like I didn't have any business being out there, like a kid playing a man's game," he said.

Earnhardt's lack of consistency means that despite his strong run in the first third of the season, he'll probably lose the rookie of the year battle with Matt Kenseth tough for the son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

But Little E, who opened the season with two victories in the first 11 points races, knows exactly where things went wrong.

"There was a point midway through the season where I might have let my ego get a little out of control," he said. "The team lost a little bit of control of ourselves because of that. Because we had won some races, maybe all of us thought we were a little better than we were."

But Earnhardt is quick to take the blame, and admits the downfall started with him.

He moved up to Winston Cup after winning two consecutive Busch Grand National titles. He signed the biggest sponsorship deal in Winston Cup history with Anheuser-Busch, and the company introduced him by having him ride into a news conference on one of its trademark hitches of horses.

It was all a little surreal for Earnhardt, who wasn't sure how to handle it. Because he's more open than his intensely private father, he wasn't sure where to draw the line.

Now he thinks he knows where he crossed it

After winning the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Earnhardt talked about how well things were going for him. His only complaint was that his crew members had not shown up at his latest party.

And make no mistake, Earnhardt said, he throws the best parties. The bashes are held in his basement, which he'd turned into a nightclub called Club E.

"My dad said I probably shouldn't have said anything about the nightclub and at first I didn't think it was a big deal," he said. "I let reporters come over to do stories and camera crews were let in, and after a while I was like, 'Dad's right, what I am doing? This is my house."'

But he'd created a party-boy image that he couldn't shake.

He was staying up late drinking beer every night, then sleeping until noon every day.

He was late for promotional appearances, and wasn't always focusing on his job when he was at the track.

All of it was creating tension on his team.

"The guys got ill at me and I confused it with jealousy," he said. "I thought they thought I was just the driver and didn't have to do any work the rest of the week. And really they thought driver or not, that was just a poor way for me to live."

Finally, he realized it was time to straighten out.

"I was like 'What I am I doing?"' he explained.

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