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Daytona Beach, Florida
The Daytona 500
The Future Has Arrived
The Daytona 500 is known as the Great American Race. Some insist on referring to it as the Super Bowl of racing. I like the Super Bowl, but I think that having every team and every NASCAR superstar in one race is more compelling than a game with only two teams. No matter what you choose to call it, the 500 is the biggest race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season.
I am Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 8 Budweiser NASCAR Winston Cup car. The 2000 season is my first in American racing's biggest league. I drove five races in the Winston Cup series as a practice run last year, but now an entire season looms ahead for me and my team. Some of the media and fans are calling me the most heralded and hyped rookie in NASCAR's fifty-plus–year history. That kind of crap puts a lot of pressure on me, but no more than I put on myself.
Call me what you want. Most call me Dale Jr. Or Dale. Or Junior. Or Little E. My dad started calling me Junebug when I was young. Hell, I'll answer to any of 'em.
I am the second-oldest son of a racing legend, seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, whose skill behind the wheel and an ironhanded, commonsense approach to life created a huge self-made success on the track, in the boardroom, and in the family room.
My life is full of contradictions. On the one hand, if you believe everything you read, I'm some kind of rising superstar; I've even been called the future of NASCAR. But on the other hand, I'm really just a normal guy. I was born October 10, 1974, and like most other guys in their twenties, I likenothing more than to chill out at home, have a cold beer and hang with my buddies. Some people think of me as a hell-raising partyer, known to occasionally play the drums on stage with famous rock bands. Truth is, much of the time I'm quiet, introspective, and sometimes almost painfully shy. I think I'm a lot like other people my age, and I hope I'm also growing to be a lot like my dad. If I can ever come close to my fatherbeing successful on and off the track and with my familyI'll be all right.
My dad has won thirty-four races here at Daytonamore than twice as many races as anyone elseincluding wins in the Daytona 500, the 125-mile qualifying races, the International Race of Champions, the Busch Clash, the Firecracker 400, and the Busch Series races. Yet he lost the Daytona 500 nineteen times before winning in his twentieth start in 1998. I thought Dad was just as great before he won that race as he was after he won, but some say your career is incomplete without winning it at least once. It's like someone saying an athlete was unsuccessful in their careerno matter how great their stats wereif they didn't win the Super Bowl, World Series, or Olympic gold. I guess, because I saw Dad try so hard and still not win it so many times, I feel differently. Sure, I want to win it right now, but it's not everything.
When Dad finally won the Daytona 500, it was one of his greatest victories. People remember that race for the way every crew member from every team ran out on pit lane to give him a high five after he had won. I think that showed how much he was liked and respected among his competitors despite his "Intimidator" nickname and reputation. After slapping hands with hundreds of crew guys, he went out in the grass and did donuts for a few minutes. It was a great moment and I remember how happy he was afterwards.
This is my first Daytona 500. Literally. I've never even seen one in person. I was always in school each February and couldn't travel to watch my dad race until the summer months. Just driving into the infield of the track through the tunnel underneath Turn 4 is exciting. The history and the prestige of this place are just so immense that I can't wait to say I've raced in the Daytona 500. No matter what else I do in life, no one can ever take that away from me.
Or, should I say, I hope this is my first Daytona 500. As a rookie driver with a rookie team, there is no guarantee at all that our car will even be in the starting field. More than fifty teams are trying to gain one of the forty-three starting positions, and just because my team and I have won the last two Busch Series championships (NASCAR's version of Triple-A baseball), that doesn't help us at all now.
I can't imagine not making the starting lineup. There has been so much buildup to this one event that the pressure is immense on the whole team. It's the first race of the year, and people have been talking about Daytona since an hour after the 1999 season ended. Hell, for me it goes back more than eighteen months to the day that we announced to the world that Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) was pairing up with Budweiser to move up to the Winston Cup series in the year 2000. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Every sponsor makes big plans for this race, and every team spends the entire off-season preparing their best new cars just to make it into the starting field. Anything the crew can imagine (or purchase) is put into the car to win this one race. I have a good team behind me, but strange things can happen, so you hope and hope and hope that all goes well. I don't know how I could face my fans and my sponsors if I failed to qualify. I may as well take the rest of the year off.
In the Busch Series, we always had a fast car here, but I never finished better than fourteenth place in the two races at Daytona. My first race was in 1998, and it ended with my car flipping down the back straightaway at something like 170 miles per hour. As I was flipping, all I could see was earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, sky. . . . When I flipped for the final time, the ground looked as if it was being thrown at me like a giant prop from the movie Twister. Only after the car came to a stop did I realize I had landed upside down. It was as wild and exhilarating as any ride I've ever taken. When you clear your head and realize you're not seriously hurt, you think, Hell yeah! That was wild!
The Daytona 500 is the climax of two weeks of practice and qualifying, as well as other special races like the Bud Shootout (reserved exclusively for last year's Bud Pole position winners), two 125-mile qualifying sprints, an IROC race, which is a fight between twelve champion drivers in identical cars (I'll be racing against Dad in that one, too), a 300-mile Busch race, a NASCAR truck series race, and a helluva lot more.
The track seats almost 170,000 people and you can add about half that many in the infield as well. (Let's see the Super Bowl try to match that.) Many of those people are around for the whole two weeks, living in their RVs, cooking on the grill, drinking Bud, partying, watching the races, buying souvenirs, and trying to get close to the drivers.
Being a Winston Cup driver means being accessible to the fans. This accessibility is the basis of NASCAR's popularity, and a huge tradition that goes back to when there was no fencing around the garage area and fans were able to wander around and talk to the drivers before the race. This still happens, but you need to know someone who is a sponsor or on a race team to get a garage pass. I cannot imagine any other professional sport that would allow you into the locker room or dugout so close to the start of the game.
The drivers have known for years they weren't anything without the fans. So they signed autographs, they did interviews, and they let the fans get close and see them. The fans felt like they knew the drivers personally, and the result was fan loyalty. This continues today. When a lot of other sports see declining loyalty among fans and players, NASCAR fans remain faithful. Young drivers learn early to treat the fans right. I learned it from being around racetracks for my entire life.
There is no telling how many autographs a NASCAR driver will sign during Speedweeks. Thousands, for sure. And someone like my father or Richard Petty will sign millions in his career. In fact, I often joke that Richard Petty ruined it for all of us because he was known to sign anywhere and anything for anybody. Now fans expect that from all of us! I say that half-jokingly, because I'm happy to sign most of the time, but sometimes the constant crush gets overwhelming.
I used to feel strange about signing autographs, because I thought people were just asking because of who my dad was. But sometimes it's really cool to sign an autograph. For instance, Kenny Mayne of ESPN's SportsCenter interviewed me on the day before the 500. He teased me that I looked like some college kid on spring break and then he asked me to sign the cover of his copy of the latest ESPN magazine. (It didn't hurt that my photo was on the cover, along with my buddy and longtime rival Matt Kenseth.) Mayne meets all kinds of athletes but he still wanted me to sign the magazine, and he even asked me to go out and race karts with him after the race. I thought he was just kidding, but I heard later he was pissed off that I didn't show up.
One of the first nights in Daytona, I did a radio show at the local shopping mall with Benny Parsons, a guy who went from driving a taxi in Detroit to winning a Winston Cup championship. Benny is a good guy and everyone likes talking to him, so I enjoy doing his show. The producers told all of the drivers that they didn't have to sign any autographs for the hundreds of fans packed into the mall for the show. Some guys took that seriously, and walked in and out of the security entrance without signing a thing.
I'm not comfortable just walking past, especially since there are many people packed three, four, and five rows deep along a roped-off area behind the stage. They couldn't see or hear the radio showthey are there for one thing: autographs.
They are all holding or waving something to be signed: a die-cast collectible of my race car, life-size cardboard cutouts of me that they "borrowed" from their local bar or convenience store, T-shirts, hats, trading cards. Hell, I have signed just about everything except checks or money orders.
I have fun on the air with Benny, but I'm tired. I'm in a bad mood. I just want to get back to my own motor coach for some peace and quiet and video games. But these fans are the people who pay my salary, so I remember Richard Petty and I venture out into the middle of the walkway. Somehow, especially early in his career, Dad has always been able to walk right through a line like this without signing a thing. He'd say, "I gotta go! I'm late for [insert excuse here]!" and the crowd would go crazy. "Go get 'em, Dale!" or "Kick their ass, man!"
Nowadays fans are much more aggressive and much more demanding. They think you owe it to them to stay and sign every last one. If I walked out without signing, they'd all yell, "Fuck you, Junior!" and "You suck!"
So I take out a black Sharpieit's the NASCAR tool of choice for this joband I start signing. My dad and Petty use a long, complex signature to sign their names, but I prefer the immediate approach. I almost always sign "Dale Jr." and sometimes I'll put a small "#8" below it. Tonight there are so many people here, I can't possibly sign for everyone, so I look for the official merchandise firstmy hats, jackets, T-shirts, model carsbecause I know the fans with that stuff had to go find it and buy it and that they are really my fans. (Plus I get a few nickels and dimes from that stuff too.) I always try to seek them out first.
The biggest secret to signing autographs in a big crowd is to keep moving. While I sign (left-handed of course), I keep moving slowly toward the door. When you stop moving, the crowd can surround you and things can get out of hand. As I inch closer to the exit, the people at the back get more impatient and start pushing. This is when it gets tense and I worry about people getting knocked overespecially little kids.
I sign for about thirty minutes, when my publicist Jade Gurss and I finally reach the doorway. When we turn to leave, the ones who got an autograph are cheering and the rest are saying, "Fuck you, Junior" and "You suck!" See, I told you so.
In a perfect world, I could sign for all of them, but it's late and I have to be in the race car early the next day.
At Daytona, being a rookie dictates many things, including your location in the garage. Teams are placed according to their position in the point standings in last year's Winston Cup, and since we ran only five races in 1999, we didn't accumulate many points. The top ten point-earners get the biggest garage stalls as well as other perks. Each team uses stacks and stacks of Goodyear Eagle racing slicks, and it takes a lot of time and effort to mount all of those tires for each of the teams. They are mounted for the successful and winning teams first, so we have to wait patiently for them to stack our tires.
My team is parked way down in one of the last garage stallsall dusty and cramped. Right next to us is Matt Kenseth, who is driving a Ford for team owner Jack Roush. Matt and I became buddies off the track during the last two years, when we were both running the Busch Series and competing hard for the championship. He was always my toughest competition and for some reason I think it made us closer. Matt is a good guy and a great driver, and the media who cover NASCAR are saying that the two of us are natural rivals for the Rookie of the Year award. As much as I like Matt and enjoy hanging with him, I really want to beat him. I know he's also gunning for me, since I won the last two Busch titles. NASCAR rivalries and friendships are like that. When you are out on the track, it doesn't matter who is in the other car you want to beat him. I feel that way when the guy driving the other car is my friend, like Matt, or when the other car is a black No. 3 and the driver is my dad. I want to beat him and I know he wants to beat me. Badly.
Having Matt so close in the garage is cool because it gives me someone to talk to and relax with. Because we are both new and have similar backgrounds, we learn a lot from each other. I'll talk with Matt about a lot more things than I will with my father. Dad is one of those guys who doesn't give detailed lessons or tips. But Matt and I can ask, "Is your car doing this?" or "What did you do here in Turn 3?" We even discuss off-track pressures and expectations. Our motor coaches (our homes-away-from-home) are parked side by side in the drivers' lot, so we hope to talk at night.
I don't want to make it sound like my dad doesn't offer any advice, but he always wants me to learn things for myself. When I was getting started in racing, he'd tell me things like "Be smooth" or "Be careful," but he really didn't give me a lot of specific racing hints. The one I remember most, though, is when I was just getting started in late-model stock cars at a small local track in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For three Saturday nights in a row, the same guy had spun me out. Each week, I'd try to pass him on the inside and he would cut across the track and spin my inexperienced ass around. I told Dad that the same damn guy had wrecked me three times and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever pass anyone ever again. Dad asked for more specifics about each incident. He thought for a second, and then he turned and said, "Here's what you do. The next time you come up to pass him, you know he's going to do that to you. And he will keep doing it as long as you let him do it. So you come up on the inside like before, but when he starts to cut across, you put on the brakes and keep your steering wheel straight. That should do it."
I was pumped up and ready the next week. A little unsure of the move, but I was ready. In the feature race, I was zooming along and there he wasright in front of me. I got a good run down the inside, and just as he was ready to cut me off, I put on the brakes and kept the wheel straight. When I opened my eyes, sure enough, he spun up into the wall and I cruised along just fine. Thanks, Dad.
But, of course, that move won't work here at Daytona, and I still have to make it into the race, and that's no sure thing regardless of how much advice Dad gives me. Actually, I worry a helluva lot more about making the starting field than how I'll do once we're in the race. There is a lot riding on just being in the race. No one wants to have to load up the entire team and go home three days before the race. No one wants to face several hundred VIP guests on race morning to tell them why they won't be seeing their car take the green flag.
Not making the race would be agonizing. Agonizing because all of the preparation and hard work and practice would be wasted. Agonizing because I'd feel like I let down my crew, my sponsors, my dad, and my fans. After all of the preseason hype, magazine covers, and sponsor dollars . . . it's almost too much to imagine. The worst is wondering if I'm really ready for this, if I really belong in Winston Cup.
I believe I do belong. But I still have to go out and prove it to myselfand to everyone else, especially the veteran drivers. They don't give a damn that I won two Busch titles. That would be like Michael Jordan worrying about a rookie who won an NCAA title or two. I have to make the right decisions and earn respect every lap of every race.
The qualifying system for the Daytona 500 is pretty complicated. The front two positions are determined by the Bud Pole qualifying session. Cover the thin ribbon of 2.5 miles of asphalt in less time than anyone else, and you are given the number one starting position. The Bud Pole session (one car runs at a time for two timed laps; only your best lap counts) takes place eight days before the 500. The team that wins the pole position gets to hype the media for the entire week leading up to the race. The rest of the forty-three-car field is determined by qualifying times, or where you finish in one of the 125-mile qualifying races the Thursday before the 500, or even where you ranked in last year's Winston point standings. It's difficult to understand, but the important thingfor me, anywayis to make it into the starting field, no matter what.
There are fifty-six cars going out separately for Bud Pole qualifying, one by one, to clock their best lap time. We draw the forty-eighth spot, so we have to wait for several hours before it's our turn. It feels like a month. I can't stand waiting in the garage or my motor home watching on television, so I help the guys push the car to its spot in the qualifying line.
While I am standing there, Dad comes over to give me a little pep talk and some tips about the track conditions. He looks strange in a different uniform for this race. Chevy has paid big money to paint his car in a special "Tasmanian Devil" scheme that is a big part of their Monte Carlo advertising campaign. He has been in a black car with a white driver's uniform for so long it's jarring to see him in a different uniform for just one race. Dale Jarrett, the current champion, and Jeff Burton both come by and wish me well. It feels weird to be racing against guys who I had looked up to for so many years.
Alone in my thoughts in the middle of all of the noise and hoopla, I wait my turn to qualify. There are an unbelievable number of photographers and video camera crews on the other side of the pit wall and a huge group of fans. I try to tune it all out and relax. But my gut is full of nervous rumbling. I notice one of the fans wearing one of my new souvenir T-shirts. The shirt says, The future has arrived. Damn right.
Yes, sir. The future will arrive real soon. Finally.
When I get out on the track for my qualifying laps, all I think about is driving the car. At Daytona, you can keep your foot on the throttle all the way around, so it's more about the car and whether the team has set it up to slice through the wind as efficiently as possible. The driver is just a passenger for much of the lap. We were looking for a particular lap time, and we managed to knock a half second off of that, but my qualifying time is only twenty-second fastest. Good but not great. I still might be able to finish poorly in the 125-mile qualifier and make the 500 on that lap time, but it's no sure thing and we don't want to take any chances.
I know that I have to run a good qualifying race on Thursday. That means a finish of at least fifteenth or better to ensure a spot in Sunday's lineup. But the most important thing is to finish. You don't want to get too aggressive, wreck the car, and not make the 500 at all. Sometimes it's totally out of your control. Someone else crashes and you get swept up into the accident. Or maybe a piece of the cara two-dollar part that never failed beforebreaks apart and you drop out of the race. It's not your fault, but you are still going home heartbroken.
Before Thursday's qualifying race, there is more waiting to do. There are two 125-mile qualifying races on the same day, and I'm in the second one. So I get to watch the first one and maybe learn something. I watch from the top of the transporter that the team uses to haul our race cars and a garageful of parts, pieces, and tools from track to track. The view from there is great and I get a feel for how huge and impressive the track is. The banked turns are three stories high from top to bottom and banked at 31 degrees. They call this a "self-cleaning" track, since most of the debris from a wreck will just slide down to the apron below.
When fans see that high banking for the first timein person, instead of on televisionthey get a little dizzy. Then they start thinking about the great racing with lots of passing that they're going to see here. At least they used to. In recent years the races at Daytona have been boring because it has become so hard to pass. For the last ten to fifteen years, NASCAR has used restrictor plates to reduce the horsepower of the engine slowing the cars down so they don't take off and fly through the air or into the grandstands. These plates restrict the power and make it very hard to pass unless you are a master at "the draft."
The draft occurs when cars are pulled along by the vacuum that is created by the car in front. Working together, two or more cars in the draft can all go faster than any one car alone. A car going nearly two hundred miles per hour makes a big hole in the air, and if you get inside of that hole, you have very little air resistance to move through and you get pulled along at a higher speed. You also give the car in front of you a push. Even if you are many yards behind, the draft helps your car speed up and catch the car or cars in front of you. The problem is, if you pull out to pass the car in front, your car suddenly drops out of the draft and is hit by a huge wall of air. It's like having a parachute on the back of the car.
Dad always hated the restrictor plates. He hates the reduced power because it takes away a lot of things that a driver can do to get to the front. Or maybe he just wants us to believe he hates them, because he has won a lot of restrictor-plate races and is considered the very best that ever raced with the plates. Some people claim Dad can "see the air" in the draft, but I think he just has a deeper understanding of how to use the airflow to his advantage. He knows how to use it to help his car or to mess with another car. He also has great peripheral vision, so he can see what is happening around him and is able to react quickly. Sometimes he makes moves where I think he must be able to see behind him.
After the first qualifying race, I spend a little time listening to the drivers who have just finished. A lot of them are talking about how their cars didn't handle right once the tires wore out. This might be something we can use in our race. Mainly, I need to be conservative with my tires so they will last the full distance. I'm thinking about that as I climb in my No. 8 Chevrolet. I want a top-fifteen finish to guarantee me a spot in the big race. But today my motto is Better Safe Than Sorry. If I can get into the starting field on Sunday, then I can really hang it out.
When the green flag drops, I run cautiously for the first few laps. I try to get the feel of the track and stay up near the front. The team has done a great job of setting up the car, and it flows in traffic. I'm in eleventh position but I'm faster than a lot of the cars around me. I start passing people, moving up on the leader and exciting the crowd. At one point my car handles so well that I go up high near the wall in Turn 3 and get three-wide with two other cars and pass them both. My crew insists the people in the stands were gasping for air when I made that move. You aren't supposed to do that at Daytona! Especially not if you're a rookie! But if you're a racer and you've got a car that can pass people, what you do is . . . you pass 'em. That's what I'm paid to do.
The move gets me into fourth place, and although I want to move up a few more spots, time runs out and I finish the race there. I am not just happy with the way I ran; I'm overwhelmed.
"We're in the Daytona 500!!!" I scream into the radio as I come across the finish line. "We're in the Daytona fucking 500!"
You just can't grasp what a great feeling it is. Not just an entire winter of working and worryingit's a lifelong dream for me and my crew. It's like the weight is lifted off my shoulders, just like that, in a single moment. We are in the race. Mission accomplished!
I'm gonna see my first Daytona 500 from the outside of the fourth row. That's my first thought when I wake up in the morning.
The hour prior to the start of any race is electric: everyone's nerves are on edge, and each of us still believes that he is going to win the race. Once the green flag falls, a huge dose of reality may be dealt to many of us, but for now, nervous, jittery optimism reigns supreme. The crowd begins to fill each of the 170,000 seats in the gigantic complex; thousands more will watch from the infield from atop their own recreational vehicles. The infield at most NASCAR events is like a campground with a full-time spring-break tailgate party mixed with standing- room-only viewing. The Speedway is more than a sports arena; it becomes a medium-sized city on race day. The complex covers more than 480 acres, with a 44-acre lake in the infield.
After the drivers' meeting, I slip into the team transporter to change into my work uniform. The uniform (red with black stripes, just like my race car) is equal parts fireproof safety shield/embroidered sponsor billboard (logos cover the chest, collar, sleeves, back, and even the Velcro-equipped "belt")/ formfitting jumpsuit. (The ladies say the suit looks sexy. Something about the way it makes my butt look. I pretend that that embarrasses me.)
I lace up my custom, thin-soled driving shoes with the silver coating like a space suit. The coating prevents my heels and the soles of my feet from being broiled by the heat of the 750-horsepower engine. The final piece of the uniform is a Budweiser hat. While the hat is a sharp-looking new design, I'm just not happy with the comfort.
"It feels like I'm wearing a damn cardboard box on my head," I complain to no one in particular. But I have to show the logo of the company that writes the biggest check and makes it financially possible for me to do what I love to do.
My helmet, goggles, and fireproof gloves already rest inside the race car, awaiting my arrival.
When the race starts, Dad and I will join four other father/son combinations to race together in the 500 since it began in 1959. The otherslegends allwere Lee and Richard Petty, Richard and Kyle Petty, Buck and Buddy Baker, and Bobby and Davey Allison.
After I'm introduced, I stroll to the car and begin the intricate process of strapping myself into my office. The world now moves in slow motion. Everything is quiet. I'm focused totally on the job ahead and I'm oblivious to the colorful prerace activities. National anthem. Prayer. Military jet fly-over. Crazed cheers from the stands. I don't notice any of it today.
I kneel down to strap on additional heel protection, a soft pad that insulates my feet in addition to the silver shoes. The floor of the car transfers much of the heat that is rushing through the exhaust pipes that run underneath my ass. The cockpit air temperatures can reach to 140 degrees Fahrenheit or more. How's that for working conditions for the next four hours?
I lift my right leg and slide through the driver's-side window (no such thing as an opening door on these hand-built machines) and into a seat crafted for my support, safety, and comfort. Driver comfort is essential when you have to drive five hundred miles without a restroom break or a chance to stretch your legs. The Budweiser cap comes off, and I slide it down the gearshift knob. It will ride along with me until the race ends. I can grab it and put it on quickly when I jump out. I put my custom-designed sunglasses in their own holder on what would be the passenger side of a street car.
I strap myself in with the help of Brian Cram, the crew member responsible for my comfort and safety. The seat belt is much more than a simple lap belt and shoulder harness. It is a five-belted system that wraps through the seat, with one harness over each shoulder, one across each side of my torso, and the fifth coming up between my legs (the "crotch belt") to prevent me from sliding forward out of the harness in a head-on collision. All five belts meet in the middle near the center of my belly, connecting with a deceptively simple latch. The connector is designed with a quick-release latch just in case I need to make a quick exit. Once I'm fully strapped into this harness, I feel as if I'm part of the caralmost as if I'm the heart and brains of this machine.
Communication is essential once the race is under way, and I will talk with every member of the team and my spotter via a two-way radio system. (The spotter is usually located somewhere high above the circuit with a clear view of the entire track. He helps me keep track of the traffic and avoid accidents.) To block out the extreme noise, I use form-fitted earpieces. I put them in before I slide on my old-school–style bubble goggles, just like Dad wears. The day is bright and sunny, so I choose goggles with a dark lens. Then the openfaced helmet goes on (also old school). It's painted with some cool-as-hell skulls and eight balls. It's badass! The radio is connected to a cable and microphone on the right side of the helmet, my chinstrap is secured, and I'm ready.
"Gentlemen . . . start your engines!!"
The huge crowd roars, drowning out forty-three rumbling, snarling engines as we roll down the pit lane. At the end of five hundred miles, forty-two drivers will come back losers, and one driver will place his name into racing history as the winner of the 2000 Daytona 500. I'm usually pretty calm once I'm inside the car, but today I'm unbelievably anxious.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
The slow pace laps seem to take forever, just like the rest of the buildup to this season. Then, finally! The green flag is waved by honorary starter Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a track-and-field star and new NASCAR team owner.
Once the race starts, it's like a hyper rush replaces the slowmotion buildup. It's as if it's happening with the fast-forward button mashed down hard on your VCR. Guys jockey for position, and I'm pretty happy to leap into the top five, working in the lead draft, using the cars ahead of me to slice through the air. The wind is swirling much stronger today than at any time during the month, which makes the cars do things that they haven't done before. It's disturbing to the car and the driver, but the conditions are the same for everyone, so you get used to it.
The entire pack of cars seems to be running in one large lump, almost as if they are connected by one big tow chainthe first-place car towing the others behind. Things quickly become tense and the traffic around me goes to two- and three-wide, everyone dicing hard for position.
I really don't say anything on the radio for the first twenty laps or so, as I'm just trying to comprehend everything around me. Dean Middlemiss, my spotter, is doing his best to help me move through traffic. He says, "Outside . . . outside . . ." when another car is running on the right side of my car, or "Inside . . . inside . . ." when there is one on the left. Sometimes he says, "Three-wide, you're in the middle . . ." when it gets really hairy.
The spotter keeps his eye on the action ahead. When the cars are running in large bunches so close together on the high-banked turns, it is impossible for me to see beyond my own bumper, so the spotter is a necessary second set of eyes. He is also an amateur psychiatrist, helping me balance my emotions. The rapport between the two of us is critical to a smooth race.
Many fans bring their own scanners and listen in to the radio chatter between the drivers, teams, and spotters. It really gives them a much better insight into the race. It's like eavesdropping on the huddle in football.
However, the 2.5-mile oval is a huge track, and my spotter becomes confused when the several similar-looking red cars run close together. Several times he calls out commands while watching the wrong red car. It sounds like the tension of the biggest race of the year has gotten to him.
"What the fuck are you doing, man?" I scream into the radio when I narrowly avoid making some serious contact with several other cars. "What car are you watching? You're gonna get me killed out here! . . ."
I calm down, and as the race progresses, my confidence grows with each lap. I declare some new goals near the halfway point of the race. "Guys, I am so happy to make this race, but my goals have kind of changed. We can race at the front. We gotta shot here."
As the race continues, I make contact with other cars several timesit's part of the game when you're running so close togetherbut I'm being raced hardest and treated roughest by the man in the No. 3 carmy car owner. I end up with a few "donuts" on the side of my carblack circles left on the sheet metal when another car's tire rubs against it.
Rookie Lesson Number Two: Don't mess with Dad.
As we pass three hundred miles, I struggle a little bit and drop as low as fourteenth position. I'm fighting with a race car that doesn't want to turn into the corners. When a car is "tight," the front end of the car resists turning into the corner, so I have to let off the throttle earlier than usual in order to get the front tires to turn. We need to make a change to the air pressure in the tires during the next pit stop to help correct the situation.
In addition to an ill-handling car, my aggressive style is no longer working as well as the race gets close to the final one hundred miles. Superspeedway racing requires teamwork of sorts, as cars work best when running with two or three cars nose-to-tail to better slice through the wind. It begins to look like I'm running out of dancing partners. It seems no one wants to race with a rookie.
The key moment comes on Lap 156 (of 200) when a yellow flag flies, slowing the action and sending all of the teams to pit lane. My crew chief, Tony Eury, who happens to be my uncle and the man in charge of our pit strategy, makes a bold decision.
"Two tires! Two tires only, guys!" he screams into the radio as I roll down pit lane. He hopes that the two new tires will correct the tight-handling race car.
However, it's a gamble because even though we make our pit stop much quicker and gain a few positions, cars with four fresh tires are almost always faster than cars with just two new tires.
We restart the race in second place. In our first Daytona 500, we have victory in sight with less than one hundred miles to go. Could it be this easy? I take a deep breath and tighten the shoulder harnesses.
When the green flag falls, I am right behind the leader, Johnny Benson (who is in a strange-looking all-white car with sponsor decals that look like they were put on just this morning. It turns out that they had signed a new sponsor the night before the race). Before we are even back at top speed, Mark Martin dives inside of me, making it three-wide, and I'm shuffled backwards like a stone through water.
From that moment on, I feel more like a pinball than a race driver. I can't find drafting help from anyone in the final laps, even from my dad! He and I bump and bang and it's like we're both trying too hard to beat the other. It doesn't work for anyone except the guys passing me. I am shuffled, bumped, and pushed around. I drop spot by spot helplessly until settling into thirteenth place on the final lap. Despite running among the leaders all day, many spots ahead of all the other rookies, the final laps drop-kick us behind Kenseth, who gets a late-race push to finish tenth. He is the top rookie finisher. Score round one for Matt.
Dale Jarrett, who won the Bud Pole and the Bud Shootout last weekend, grabs the clean sweep by taking his third Daytona 500 victory. Jeff Burton is second, followed by Bill Elliott in third.
Dad was shuffled back after contact with the wall late in the race, falling all the way to twenty-first. It is the first time that I've finished a Winston Cup race ahead of him, and he is not happy with his finish or with his son. And he tells the media. Loudly.
"He didn't work with anybody," he grumbles about me as soon as he is out of the car. "He wanted to pass. That's all he wanted to do, so that's why he finished where he did."
I pull into the garage and hop out to find a huge crush of media pushing to talk about my scrapes and bumps with the Intimidator.
"I had some fun racing with everyone, and with my dad," I say. "He was damn tough on metougher than anybodyno help at all! I was hoping we could work together in the draft more, but I had to fight for everything when he was racing with me. My car has some dents on it, and I tell ya it wasn't my preference to have been near some of those dicey moves near the end of the race. Everyone just got real antsy there and it got insane with people crashing and goin' everywhere.
"When the 88 car [eventual winner Jarrett] came up through there [with less than forty laps to go], he was a lot faster than me, but I would have appreciated it if he would have helped me out a little bit," I say naively. "My dad too. I thought he would be the first one to help me, but he was the last person who wanted to stay behind me. I wanted to stay with him and behind him. Everybody got to racing behind me, and it was either pass or be passed."
I guess my frustration and impatience cost us some positions on the track. All day I tried to be patient, but I just kept thinking, Get outta the way! Get outta the way! I wanted to pass those guys, but it just doesn't work like that. I wanted to get to the front so bad, but on a track like Daytona, you just can't do it on your own, you need someone to help you.
I'm pretty happy overall but of course I'm not going to be truly happy unless I win. I'm not happy to finish thirteenth, but I have to say I had a good week and the team met some high expectations. We finished on the lead lap and ran with the lead draft for most of the day. And despite my disappointment at falling behind Matt Kenseth at the finish, I'm glad he got a top-ten finish.
The Daytona Speedweeks are now over, and the adrenaline rush that has sustained me is now gone. It feels like a hangover as all of the drivers, crews, and thousands of fans head back home. Next week, the normal, week-after-week-after- week NASCAR Winston Cup grind continues. Thirty-four events in the next thirty-nine weeks lie ahead like some sort of endless marathon.
Copyright © 2002 by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.