When Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to Daytona in January for preseason
testing of his Chevy, he told anyone who'd listen that he
believed 2003 would be his breakout season. He had overhauled his
crew, with whom he had occasionally clashed with in '02, and more
important, he sounded as if he was rededicating himself to
racing. Junior has been true to his word, lifting his team into
championship contention for the first time in his four-year
Winston Cup career.
"I take my job a lot more seriously now than when I started [in
2000]," says Earnhardt, who was second to Matt Kenseth in the
points standings heading into Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350 at
Sonoma. "I've matured a little bit, and I'm more focused. All of
this has had a positive effect on our entire team."
Earnhardt's rebirth actually began late last season. After
recovering from a severe concussion that he suffered in a
late-April crash at California Speedway, he had six top 10
finishes in the last eight races. During that stretch he showed,
for the first time in his career, that he could run well on all
types of tracks, and that consistency has carried into 2003.
Tough to beat on superspeedways--in April he won a record fourth
straight race at Talladega--Earnhardt this year has been solid on
short tracks (third place at Martinsville in April) and
intermediate tracks (second at Las Vegas in March.)
All the while, Junior has done a lot of growing up, which might
be the biggest reason he's finally stepping out of the shadow of
his renowned father. He says he's cut back on midweek partying
and that he spends more time at the shop than ever before. Those
may not sound like critical issues come race day, but they've
helped transform Little E into a mini Intimidator.
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN CLEARY/ICON SMI EARNHARDT
YOUR TAKE: SI.com Poll
Who has been the most surprising driver this season?
Bobby Labonte 38%
Michael Waltrip 37%
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25%
--Based on 2,551 responses to SI's informal survey