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The Callahan Report: Dale Earnhardt Jr. proves he belongs in NASCAR's top series

3 April 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel

FORT WORTH, TX: Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt made another trip to victory lane Sunday. There was something unusual about his visit. Earnhardt parked his seventh place finishing car outside the gated area and floated onto the most coveted piece of real estate in Texas. He hugged and celebrated with his son after Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured his first-ever NASCAR Winston Cup win.

Earnhardt Sr. pulled reporters and officials out of the way to get to his son. The father and car owner was able to have a brief private moment with the winner of the Direct TV 500. When the 25 year old Earnhardt Jr. emerged from the car, asphalt and concrete rumbled as 200,000 fans congratulated the newest winner in the sport.

"He told me he loved me and then he said he just wanted to make sure I took the time to enjoy this and realize what we accomplished today," said Earnhardt Jr.

"That was pretty cool on his part to be thinking about that at that particular time," Earnhardt continued in his free spirited style. "This was a product of his work. He's proud of his son, but he's also proud that he built this team and the team won the race."

Even though Earnhardt Jr. has only competed in 12 Winston Cup races, he was beginning to have doubts about his capabilities in Winston Cup racing. After poor finishes and crashes this season, Earnhardt Jr. found his confidence in decline.

"You can beat yourself up only so much before you take a lot of confidence away from yourself," said the younger Earnhardt.

All doubts were erased Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led more laps (109) than any driver during the day. He crossed the finish line nearly six seconds ahead of the second place finisher, Jeff Burton. "The Kid" proved to himself and millions of race fans around the country that he is for real. He belongs in NASCAR's top series. It is a fact his racing father already knew.

"I'll tell you, he's something else," said Dale Sr, who won his first Winston Cup race in his 16th start. "He was talking about coming to Texas and winning his first Winston Cup race. I knew the kid could do it. This kid has worked hard, had a good car and drove a good race."

Bobby Labonte stretched his points lead on the competition Sunday. Labonte finished third behind Burton after a long battle late in the race.

"I just couldn't get by Bobby there," Jeff Burton said. "He's a tough competitor. I had a fast enough car to run with Dale Jr., but once I got behind him, there was no sense in running the car any harder than I needed to. I was too far behind."

Rusty Wallace, still charged up from his win a week ago at Bristol, finished in fourth place. He was followed by Kevin Lepage, Jeremy Mayfield and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The race was slowed a record twelve times. Ten caution periods were caused by crashes. The most bizarre incident of the day involved Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon. Elliott wound up with the rear of his car on Gordon's hood for several seconds exiting the second turn. Both drivers were able to continue after repairs with hammers and duct tape.

Scott Pruett, Jerry Nadeau, Dale Jarrett, Johnny Benson, Elliott Sadler, John Andretti, Matt Kenseth, and Joe Nemechek were also involved in accidents on the Texas high-banks. Sadler had a shoulder injury, while Jarrett had a bruised knee. Jarrett later re-joined the race.

There were 29 lead changes, which was also a new record.

Competitive racing, high speeds, exiting metal grinding, and a first time winner. The Direct TV was the perfect recipe for a Sunday afternoon.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot photos and racing art, please visit The Racing Image Galleries and The Visions of Speed Art Gallery