Originally created 04/03/00

New generation takes over

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The man in the black race car ignored the NASCAR officials on pit road Sunday and drove directly to the side of Victory Lane after the DirecTV 500.

It was the only time Dale Earnhardt beat his son all afternoon.

The proud father, a seven-time Winston Cup Series champion, was the first person to greet the 26-year-old winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., following his stirring victory before 223,000 fans at the Texas Motor Speedway.

The same man who can be so cold and calculating behind the wheel of a speeding car, was suddenly wobbly kneed by the occasion. He pushed aside well-wishers as his son finally drove the family's Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo into the most-hallowed piece of real estate in racing, the father reached inside, hugged his son and told him who much he loved him.

"I don't know if he was putting on or not, but he was really happy," young Earnhardt said after joining his father as one of only seven rookies to win a race in NASCAR history. "He reached in there and told me to take time to enjoy this. That's pretty neat he can remember to say something like that in that situation. I'm his son, but he's also the car owner. This whole thing is a product of his.

"I'm overwhelmed. This is crazy man. At the end, I could see the fans getting excited, and when I turned through (turn) four, I saw all the lights flashing. I can't believe it."

On the same afternoon when the son of another legend, Gary Nicklaus, lost his bid for his first a PGA Tour victory in sudden death, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made sure it wasn't that close coming down the stretch. He led six times for 106 laps, including the 53. He was 5.920 seconds -- about one-third of a mile -- ahead of second-place Jeff Burton at the finish line.

"We didn't change nothing all day long," Earnhardt said after winning $374,675. "That should tell you something about the car.

"I kept waiting for the 6 (Mark Martin), the 99 (Burton) and the 18 (Bobby Labonte), the same guys that always run good, to get up there. But I ran them down, passed them and I said, `What are they doing?' I was thinking the 88 (Dale Jarrett) or the 6 would come hauling up through there at any time and be tough to beat. But it never happened."

The win came 21 years and one day after his father won his first race. It was hard to tell who was happier in Victory Lane.

"We knew the kid could do it," the father said. "The boy drove a good race. This is great. He worked hard. It took a lot of hard work, and I knew it would be just a matter of time before he would win. This feels good. He's something else."

As the car owner, the father gets a sizable chunk of the earnings. More important, it put his son on the Winner's Circle Plan -- an incentive worth about $400,000 paid by NASCAR to drivers who attempt to qualify for every race during the season.

Earnhardt Jr.'s victory was the second-quickest by a rookie since NASCAR went to its modern era in 1972. Ron Bouchard won at Talladega, Ala., in 1981 in his 11th start, and the winner's father won in his 14th start in 1979.

"All I had to do was point and shoot that thing," Earnhardt Jr. said. "There were times when we were mired back in eighth or 10th place (during the middle of the race) and I was freaking out. I knew my car was fast, but it's so hard to pass. There were times my car was crazy fast. That last run, it was crazy fast."

Burton was a distant second and clearly no threat to Earnhardt Jr.'s wild ride.

"I had a fast enough car to run with Dale Jr.," he said. "Once I got behind him, though, there wasn't any sense in running the car any harder than I needed to. I was too far behind to catch him."

There were a race-record 29 lead changes among 17 drivers. Earnhardt Jr. averaged 131.152 mph in a race that was slowed 12 times for cautions.

The most-serious accident came on the 112th lap when Jeff Gordon, Dave Blaney, Jerry Nadeau, Bill Elliott and Steve Park crashed in the second turn. Elliott's car actually landed on the hood of Gordon's, sending both drivers to the garage area for repairs.

Defending Winston Cup Series Champion Dale Jarrett also was a victim of a second-turn crash. He got a bump from his Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd, sending his Ford caroming into the outside wall and to the garage for repairs.

Although there were 10 crashes, none of the drivers was seriously injured.

Part of young Earnhardt's success came after a talk this week with Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition. Nelson apparently told the rookie he needed to calm down if he wanted to drive faster. It worked.

"Gary Nelson said some things to me nobody's ever said," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm like anybody else: I need to be told I'm a good race car driver. It's like when you're married, you need to tell your wife you love her. He told me I was a good driver, but I needed to calm down before I made a fool of myself.

"It was kind of fun to show I can use my head; I can make good decisions. I hope I improved my status as a driver."

His father was convinced of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s status as a son and a race car driver a long time ago. The hug in Victory Lane was only a reminder.


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