BRISTOL, Tenn. - For most of his young life, it was easy for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be the son of a racing legend.
Earnhardt, a third-generation driver, could play and party while his father cleaned up most of his messes. Now that his father is gone, Earnhardt admits the pressure to live up to the family tradition is difficult, if not overwhelming.
The crush of attention from fans and media has driven him deeper into despair. There are no quiet moments and no places to hide, and it's taking a brutal toll on a youngster who only now understands the burden of his namesake.
Earnhardt got a thunderous ovation during driver introductions before Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Before the pre-race festivities started, he remained hunkered down in the drivers' motor home compound. He was taken by a bus from the secured area to the finish line for introductions.
After he was introduced to more than 150,000 fans, he needed a wall of security officers to help him walk from the finish line to his car.
"Every driver gets to that point some time in the season," Earnhardt said. "If you walk up and down this garage, and look behind everybody's pit you won't see too many people standing there. But behind our pit, there's 30 or 40 people always around our pit stall. There's reporters, there's press, there's fans. We're just really under a lot of pressure to perform."
Earnhardt was fifth in the points standings after his victory at Talladega, Ala., on April 21. Now he's 16th. His Budweiser Chevrolet has been strong at the two race tracks that use restrictor plates - Daytona and Talladega - and it has been good at the short tracks. At the other raceways, the intermediate and superspeedways that make up the bulk of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule, the car and the team have struggled.
What compounds Earnhardt's troubles is his inability to work with his pit crew to fix the problems. Because of his popularity, he spends more time running for cover than giving the team the help they need.
Saturday night's main event, which started a half-hour late because of rain, was a much-needed short track race. Earnhardt started on the outside pole and led many of the early laps. He said his team has been busy the past two weeks trying to lay a foundation for the future.
"They now realize they never will find peace at the racetrack, so they'll concentrate on making the car as good as possible at the race shop. We just got into a slump," he said. "We just haven't been good at getting our cars to handle anywhere else (other than restrictor plate and short tracks). What it comes down to when you get to these places, you've got to come out of the trailer fast."
Earnhardt said he's worked hard with his car chief, Tony Eury Jr., in the past couple weeks in improving their communication.
"The newer, harder tires from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. have made old setups and notes obsolete. We're really understanding now that the communication is probably the most valuable thing we have," Earnhardt said. "That overrides having great notes and a great setup from last year and all that good stuff. It's really a lot harder I think than I ever imagined as far as getting the cars to handle good and drive good. We're just so (mad) about how we run at some of these places. We take it home with us and it wears us out."
Earnhardt said he doesn't understand why he gets so much attention, especially because he's been in a slump that's lasted four months.
"I feel kind of so undeserving sometimes because we run (badly) on a racetrack and we still get all this attention; being the focal point of the sport, and we're going to lead the sport into the new millennium, whatever," he said. "We can't do any of that if we can't run good on the racetrack. I feel I can win five championships in a row if my car drives great every week. I think anybody can. You get to where you feel like you're wasting time sometimes."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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