NASCAR & Auto Racing

Dale Earnhardt Jr. could keep the North Carolina streak intact

It is generally not allowed for reporters to be partisans for a team or, in racing, driver. One of the basic rules in my line of work is there is no cheering in the press box.

Sometimes, though, you can’t help but have a rooting interest. Generally, I find myself pulling for the best story.

First-time winners, people winning at their home tracks or teams overcoming some major adversity – all of those seem to work out nicely.

This week, for instance, I believe it’s perfectly reasonable to say it’d be nice to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

No, I am not joining the legion of Earnhardt Jr. fans. This is purely a matter of home-state pride.

Since the beginning of NASCAR’s top series in 1949, at least one driver born in North Carolina has won at least one race every season. But in 2007, no driver from the Tar Heel state has been to Victory Lane.

Sure, most guys who’ve won this year live in North Carolina now. But the streak is about natives.

A lot of my fellow North Carolinians have won at NASCAR’s top level, but you only need six to make both ends of that remarkable streak meet.

Start in 1949 will Lee Petty. The patriarch of the Petty clan won at least once every year through the 1961 season. Richard Petty was already winning by that time, and he took over in 1962 and won at least once every year through 1977.

When The King didn’t win in 1978, Benny Parsons, who was born in Ellerbe, did. He carried the torch through 1981 and then Dale Earnhardt picked it up. Earnhardt won at least once a year through 1996, and then in 1997 Dale Jarrett stepped up. Jarrett didn’t win in 2004, but Earnhardt Jr. did and he also won at least once in 2005 and 2006.

Earnhardt Jr. won’t be the only N.C. native driver this weekend. Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Scott Riggs and Brian Vickers also were born here, and they could keep the Carolina train rolling.

But Earnhardt Jr. would seem to be the most likely candidate, and that also would be the most popular outcome with local fans, Earnhardt Jr. grew up in Kannapolis and lives in Mooresville, and the 1.5-mile track here has been a big part of his career. It’s where he made his first Cup start, the 1999 Coca-Cola 600.

“Charlotte is where it all started for me in the No.8 Budweiser car,” said Earnhardt Jr., who will be driving that Dale Earnhardt Inc. car at the track for the last time before switching to a No.88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports next year.

“Qualifying for that race was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in a race car. There was a lot of pressure, and that never really went away. I just got used to it.”

He vividly remembers the pressure he felt before his Cup debut.

“When I was sitting down there on the end of pit road getting ready to qualify for the 600 in ’99, I told (crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. that I would trade every bit of it to be in the grandstands,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was so . . . nervous that I didn’t think I could physically steer the car around the race track. There were butterflies, but it wasn’t about wrecking, it was about failure.”

He had spent a lot of time at the track before driving on it. He watched his late father run here for years.

“We would park on the hill in the road course in the middle of Turns1 and 2,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That was where the Earnhardts and the Eurys and everybody got together and parked their trucks. I was a little 10-year old out there rolling my race cars down the banking of the road course during the race.

“I have watched a lot of races here, been to a lot of races here and just seen so much change with this race track. It makes me feel like I’ve got a big connection to this place and a real good relationship with the track. Even though it is not a living, breathing thing, it does have a personality and it does have a way of reaching out to you every once in a while – good and bad.”