Whirlwind days follow Junior's 500 win

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- It was time to go back to work.
   In the days following his Daytona domination, Dale Earnhardt Junior's schedule found little time for driving his No. 8 Chevrolet stock car.
   "As soon as I won the (Daytona 500) race and looked in the eyes of (p.r.representatives) J.R. Rhodes and Jade Gurss, I could tell I was in for hell week," said Earnhardt. "They were already apologizing before I even said anything.
   "I'm real hard on both of them. Everybody's opinion is that they just point and shoot and that I just go wherever they say, but I get really hard on them."
   Junior still had to attend to one piece of on-track business. He was leading the Hershey's Kisses 300 race for the Busch Series on Saturday when rain forced the delay of the event. When the race resumed on Monday, Earnhardt took up where he left off driving to a 19th career Busch Series win.
   After that third Daytona win in five days, came a whirlwind tour of New York City hitting all kinds of high-powered media outlets.
   Being one of the most in-demand persons in the world of sports forced Junior to put limits on public appearances last season.
   "I'm pretty strict about what I think I should be doing and what I shouldn't be doing," said Earnhardt. "We do a lot of arguing, but at the end of the day, whatever we need to do, we get done.
   "I did razz them a little bit, but I did enjoy being in New York. All the attention that the Daytona 500 winner gets was pretty interesting to be a part of."
   One subject he did grow tired of was constant comparisons of his Daytona 500 win with his famous father.
   "The one difficult part was that everybody, and I understand it to a point, but I'm not sure I want to be involved in the conversation every time, but every interview that I did they related my dad's death to the win and his win six years before that," said Earnhardt.
   "I was answering the same question over and over. I'm just wondering when the day will come when I don't have to reflect back for every person that wants to do an interview. That kind of gets old."
   Junior has been apprehensive about complaining. He just wants people to understand his unique situation.
   "I don't know what's right and what's wrong because I want to honor my old man," said Junior. "I know what he meant to me and I know what he meant to a lot of other people. I don't want people to think I'm losing appreciation, but I don't want to bank on it either.
   "He was awesome. He was a a great race car driver. I don't want to feel like I'm using it to my advantage. That's the last thing I want to do."
   Any fair-minded person has to now consider Junior a top driver in the Cup Series on his own merit. In 2002, he won three races and led more laps than any other racer. The 2003 season saw him finish a strong third in points with wins at Talladega and Phoenix.
   This season starts with a fifth place at Rockingham following his Daytona 500 win.
   Earnhardt gained new respect within the racing community at Daytona. It was expected that he would do well in the NASCAR races as his No. 8 race cars have consistently been fast on the restrictor-plate tracks.
   Junior's performance in the 24 Hours of Daytona race for sports cars, particularly a strong drive through the night portion of the event on a rain-soaked track proved he was a versatile talent.
   Earnhardt enjoyed all the time in Florida, even the practice sessions leading up to his 10th career Winston/Nextel Cup win in the Daytona 500.
   "It was a lot of fun," said Earnhardt. "We just kept at it everyday. We had a fast car down the straightaway. We had a lot of trouble getting the car comfortable in the corner and getting it to turn like I wanted it to.
   "Right before the race in one of the last practices, Tony (Eury) Jr. put a set-up in the car we ran a couple of years ago as far as springs and the sway bar. That got the car turning real good. That's all we needed. It was just so fast down the straightaway. I just needed to get it freed up in the corners to take advantage of how good the car was."
   A key to winning the race was a breakaway draft involving Earnhardt and Tony Stewart. With 19 laps to go, Earnhardt pushed the pedal to the floor and drove past his good friend.
   "It seemed like every time we pitted, we bridged a gap between us and the rest of the field," said the driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. "I asked Tony how that happened because everybody was real close on pit stops.
   "I think it was due to Tony and I pitting a couple of laps earlier and breaking the pack up. We had a great car and Tony did too. That's how we got separated from everybody else."
   "Our cars worked together real good. We were able to push ourselves away from everybody else and still be fast enough to hold the distance that we had on the other draft during pit stops."
   He liked changes to the tires made by manufacturer Goodyear with the intent of putting more into the driver's hands at Daytona.
   "The driving reminded me of cornering at Atlanta," said Earnhardt. "You would go in the corner and lift a little bit. You'd get back on the gas and the back end would step out. You were driving and steering and turning.
   "We were all really driving them hard. I was behind Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart for a while. They'd go into a corner and about spin out. It was awesome to see. We were using the whole track."
   That forced the drivers to use a different strategy than in previous Daytona races.
   "You couldn't have blocked the bottom lane if you had to," said the Mooresville, NC driver. "That's what you need, the cars to be sliding around driving them up off the corner and using all the race track like we do everywhere else.
   "It reminded me of how racing used to be before they put the plates on. I thought they'd never be able to obtain that. I don't know if we'll ever see it again, but that was pretty interesting."
   Already established as a 2004 title contender, the Daytona 500 win put him on top of the series points. Earnhardt says that one race has little bearing on the overall picture.
   "The Daytona 500 is not a good barometer to decide what the championship race might look like," said Earnhardt. "I won't guess what our year beholds. I feel we're as strong as we appeared to be last year.
   "We, like everybody else, tried to improve on everything during the offseason and it shows."
   Being a two-time champion in the Busch Series, Earnhardt knows to win the Cup Series title the team must be strong at all types of race tracks.
   "In 2003 we wanted to run better at short tracks and road courses and we did," remarked Earnhardt. "We struggled at Kansas, Homestead and Texas for some reason.
   "It seems that every time we focus on one area, we lose or start to fail in another. Hopefully this year we don't because we need to cover all the bases and that's what it's going to take."