Earnhardt Jr. returns to site of greatest thrill
By Jenna Fryer / AP
CONCORD, N.C. (May
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s greatest thrill in racing was
winning The Winston, then having his father rush to the winner's circle to help him
``I just remember that at that time I could have quit driving race cars for the rest of my
life and been happy,'' he said of his victory last year in NASCAR's all-star race. ``At
that very moment I felt like I would never enjoy another win as much. That race is my
proudest moment as a driver.''
Earnhardt Jr. pulled off a stunning upset, taking the checkered flag after racing from the
back of the field. He became the first rookie to win the race.
A photograph taken during that euphoric moment in the winner's circle now hangs in
Earnhardt Jr.'s home. It shows the Earnhardts standing side-by-side, smiling broadly. It's
a reminder of the happier times they shared.
After having a distant relationship with his father for most of his childhood, Earnhardt
Jr. grew closer to him after he began driving in the Busch series -- where he won
consecutive titles -- for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 1998.
Racing gave them something in common. Winning strengthened the bond.
So memories like those of The Winston help him deal with his father's death. The NASCAR
icon was killed Feb. 18 in a wreck on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
``The winner's circle last year was the happiest time I think I ever spent with my dad,''
Earnhardt Jr. said. ``I felt like I had really done something, you know, something like a
'Hell yeah, I did this!' and I knew Dad felt the same way.
``He said `This is cool' and he didn't have a plane he had to go jump on, so we threw beer
around on each other and jumped around and hollered and made fools of ourselves on
national television. It was a lot of fun, a time I'll never forget.''
There's no doubt Earnhardt Jr. will be looking back at that moment when he returns to
Lowe's Motor Speedway to defend his title Saturday night.
The annual all-star event has always been special to him. He grew up not far from the
track, so it was one of the few venues he was able to go to as a child to watch his father
race in person.
He would sit high up in the condominiums overlooking Turn 1, beaming like any young child
would as he watched his father compete.
Dale Earnhardt was the only three-time winner of The Winston, a no-holds-barred event
where finishing second matters little because no championship points are awarded.
``I've seen some great races, some of the most exciting races ever,'' Earnhardt Jr. said.
``It's one I look forward to every year.''
Although only a rookie, Earnhardt Jr. didn't settle for just being included in the field
last year. He won the race by deftly moving through the traffic, something his father did
so often while winning a record-tying seven Winston Cup championships.
Track president Humpy Wheeler, who publicly predicts the outcome each year, had selected
He was right for the ninth time in the last 13 years. But Dale Earnhardt was furious over
``His father gave me a really hard time for picking Junior,'' Wheeler said, relating an
encounter with The Intimidator before the race. ``He said `Why did you do that?' and I
said, `Because he's going to win!' and Dale said, `That's too much pressure on him.'
``Well, it wasn't, and I think that last year's Winston was the best NASCAR race ever run
Earnhardt Jr. proved the best of the best that night, taking command over the final eight
laps. He passed everyone, including his father, who was trying to chase down leader Dale
``I thought I could give Dale Jarrett some trouble, and then I saw this kid running in my
rearview mirror and couldn't believe it,'' Earnhardt said after the race. ``He just ran us
down -- he's something else.''
A year later, Earnhardt Jr. still cherishes the moment.
``I've watched the tape of the race a hundred times since then and it's just as cool as
the day it happened,'' he said. ``It was awesome the way it all unfolded. I'll never
forget it as long as I live.''
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