|Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Texas Motor Speedway (November 2011) |
Photo Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs
To me, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Texas Motor Speedway go together like springtime and bluebonnets. Despite having only won twice at the "Great American Speedway" - those were such special wins that for me, Junior and Texas are inextricably intertwined.
My late husband, who introduced me to NASCAR, was an Earnhardt fan. A rebel at heart, he was also a Gordon fan but that's another story. He kept an eye on Junior's performance with the hope that the younger Earnhardt would live up to the family name.
Fifteen years ago this month, Junior scored the first victory of his NASCAR career at Texas Motor Speedway. Just seven races into his first full season in the Busch Series, he demonstrated that he just might have inherited some of his daddy's talent. Texans are notoriously territorial, and for the crown prince of NASCAR to win here first bound him irrevocably to the track and the state.
In his first-person account of his rookie season, driver of the No. 8, Junior said of TMS, "...the reaction when I'm introduced is enthusiastic and vocal. This makes me feel really good, because I think they are cheering for what I've done here in the past. I'm sure some fans are probably cheering for me just because I'm an Earnhardt. I feel like that's the case at most all of the tracks we go to, especially when I get a big fan response even though I've never raced there before. But here, it's different. I really feel like they are cheering for me. I like Texas, and Texas seems to like me."
He won the race that day, two years and two Busch championships after his 12th initial victory. It was his first in Winston Cup and just his 12th Cup start, a record at the time. What often goes overlooked was that it was the team's 12th start as well. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated first put a car on the track in 1996 but didn't run a full season until 1999 with Steve Park in the No. 1. The No. 8 team ran five races in 1999, the most a rookie could run and still compete for Rookie of the Year.
I went back to watch the end of the 2000 DirecTV 500. Almost everyone has seen the replays of the victory lane celebration but this clip has those last few laps with Ned Jarrett and Buddy Baker calling the action. Two men keenly aware of the emotions involved on either side of the father-son relationship, both that of the Earnhardts and their own.
In the book "Driver #8" Junior revealed that during his celebratory donuts, he tore the clutch out of the Budweiser Chevy so his crew pushed the car to victory lane - which at TMS is just behind pit road on the center of the frontstretch. His daddy got there first and jumped out of his car after a seventh-place finish of his own. He swept into the fenced area with his larger-than-life energy easily overshadowing the throngs of people gathered to greet the race winner.
As poignant as the interaction between Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. was, the part where Dale Sr. awaited his son's arrival also touches my heart. In those moments "Ironhead, the Man in Black, the Intimidator," Winston Cup champion, and team owner was more than anything else - a proud father.
Earnhardt Jr. also shared what his father said while leaning in the car window. "I love you. I want to make sure you take the time to enjoy this and enjoy what you accomplished today. You can get so swept up in what's going on around you that you really don't enjoy it yourself, so I want you to take a minute and celebrate how you want to celebrate."
Junior won another race during his rookie season, finishing a respectable 16th in points. He also had seven DNFs and lost the Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors to his friend and perennial rival, Matt Kenseth.
We'll never know whether Junior's second and subsequent seasons would have been more successful than they were had his father not been killed in the first race of his sophomore year. Living in the shadow of a legend can't be easy, whether that legend is alive or not.
We'll never know whether Junior would have improved on his third-place finish in 2003, career high six wins in 2004 or 16 top-five season had his entire team not been pulled out from under him in 2005. The team had been switched with that of teammate Michael Waltrip whose 2004 season ended with a 20th-place finish in points.
We'll never know whether Junior's career would have been more successful had he and Teresa Earnhardt been able to come to terms with his contract negotiations in 2007.
But we do know that while it took a while for him to settle in at Hendrick Motorsports, Rick Hendrick's pairing of the gregarious yet intense crew chief Steve Letarte with the detached and under-performing Earnhardt was nothing short of alchemy.
As I prepare for my fifth trip to Ft. Worth and my fourth live Sprint Cup race, Dale Jr. sits quietly atop the championship standings. For the first time in his career, he's held the points lead in back-to-back seasons. Maybe he won't be leading when the green flag flies Saturday night, but for him to have done so in consecutive seasons at this point in his career speaks volumes about his commitment to his craft.
Now 38 years old, Dale Jr. seems to be comfortable in his own skin and I believe Letarte gets a great deal of the credit for that. By requiring the same level of commitment and involvement expected from any other driver, not giving Junior a pass just because he's Dale Earnhardt Jr., Letarte gave Junior - in my opinion at least - the structure he'd been missing since those early days at DEI.
Where Junior used to get frustrated with an ill-handling car, berate his team on the radio and often gave up before the end of the race. He now gives excellent feedback to Letarte and the two communicate well most of the time. Junior credits Steve with much of their performance so far this year.
"Two races really come to mind, and that's Bristol and California, with just a handful of laps to go, we're not in the top 10 in either one of those races, and Steve made some pit calls in the last 25 percent of those races that set us up to be able to make up a lot of ground at the end if everything went according to plan. I don't really know if that was his plan, but he surely makes it look good," said Earnhardt.
It's a little too early to make 2013 championship or even Chase predictions, but Junior certainly appears to be a contender and a win at Texas would help. He's had five top tens in his last six starts at TMS. Add to that the fact that his last two victories have been at a mile-and-a-half track and he's the only driver this season to have five top-tens, it's not much of a stretch to think that Junior could make another visit to victory lane at the "Great American Speedway" - this time in the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports.
Janine, aka Lisa or LJ, Cloud, a fifth-generation Texan, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track.
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, going from contributor to media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and IZOD IndyCar. Janine considers it a privilege to represent the site at the track and to share with readers the excitement of the world of motorsports.