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The Callahan Report: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Deserves his Own Identity

6 July 1998

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel

INDIANAPOLIS: "Who's boy are you?" The phrase is a common question asked throughout small towns across America. Knowing someone's roots is always a good place to start a conversation. All of us learn things from our parents and we are generally proud to contribute to a conversation concerning them. At the same time, we all have our own unique identities. It is no different with auto racing legends.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been called "The Imitator" by some people in the racing community. It is a play on words. His father, seven-time Winston Cup Champion, Dale Earnhardt has been called "The Intimidator" for several years. The elder Earnhardt earned the label by virtue of his "intimidating" driving style. The younger Earnhardt has obtained his label simply by being the racing son of the 1998 Daytona 500 winner.

There is rarely a comment ever made about Dale Earnhardt Jr. in which his father is not also mentioned. This may be a trend that lasts a lifetime. Even though the name association is a proud one, those in the racing community should take note that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will write his own racing resume. The resume will be long and impressive if the 1998 DieHard 250 Busch Grand National race at the famed "Milwaukee Mile" is any indication. The young Earnhardt led 208 of 250 laps on his way to victory. He had no challengers in the race.

I have always believed it is acceptable to jump on any opportunity offered. That is exactly what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has done. His name alone has opened many doors for the young and talented NASCAR Busch Grand National driver. The money from sponsors also came easy because of name association. A top-notch crew was assembled to work with the 23 year old. That is where the benefits stop.

In order to be successful in racing, you must have "the entire package." The package consists of things that money can't buy. Things like....communication between all the members of the race team. It is a rare thing when everything "clicks". Some people are simply better at making the team package work than others. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of those rare individuals. He has been able to adapt to the team. The team has been able to adapt to Earnhardt. When the team communication flows well, the car will run well.

While Earnhardt Jr.'s communication skills may have been learned from his father, his driving skills have been attained through advice, experience, and trial and error. Earnhardt began his professional racing career at the age of 17. He competed in the street stock division at Concord Speedway. He studied the moves and applied what he had learned. His talent surfaced quickly. Earnhardt Jr. moved to the NASCAR Late Model Stock Division within two years. It was there that he learned chassis setup and preparation.

Earnhardt Jr. made limited appearances in the NASCAR Busch Grand National series last season. His talent was obvious as he posted a seventh place qualifying effort at Myrtle Beach. He had a top-five finish going until he was penalized for a pit speed violation. Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th in that race. 1998 is Earnhardt Jr.'s first full season in the NASCAR Bush Grand National Series.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been tearing up the circuit in his inaugural season. He has scored three wins on the circuit and is riding third in the series points, just 22 markers behind the leader. In just six years as a professional driver, Earnhardt is poised to make the move to NASCAR's top level, the NASCAR Winston Cup. He plans to make that move in the year 2000. The talent he has displayed this season proves he belongs there....not his name.

Earnhardt Jr. is not the only driver to follow in the shadow of his father's success. Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Michael Andretti, and Al Unser Jr. have all proven they belong at the top of their respective leagues. They have all had lifelong exposure to the sport. They all have the talent required to compete at the highest level.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not "The Imitator." He is a talented racing driver on his way to the top. The Earnhardt's will always be proud to share their name. Let Dale Earnhardt Jr. have his own identity.