Friday, October 8, 2004

'Little E' hoping to be drivers' voice

Before TV slipup, he said he
wanted leadership role

The Associated Press

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about to turn 30, and despite occasional indiscretions like being penalized for cursing on TV, he longs to be the go-to guy in NASCAR.

Already the sport's biggest star despite his lack of a championship, Junior is popular, wealthy and has shown he inherited a considerable amount of talent from his late father.

In five years in NASCAR's top stock car series, he has won 14 times and has finally become a legitimate title contender, going into Kansas Speedway this week second in points with seven races left.

But he wants more - and not just on the racetrack.

"Everybody is always telling me about my position in the sport and how far I reach and my impact here and there. I can't grasp it," Earnhardt said last week. "I don't know if I walk into a room who is listening and who isn't."

The elder Earnhardt, a seven-time champion and the biggest star of his generation, died in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500. At the time of his death, he was the biggest name and the most powerful influence in NASCAR, often visiting the NASCAR hauler to let the sport's officials know his opinion of every crisis or proposed change.

More important, as far as Junior is concerned, NASCAR officials more often than not listened to his father. The younger Earnhardt wants to be a similar spokesman.

"I'd love to be that guy. Who wouldn't? Hopefully, I can just get smarter and every time I talk I'll know what I'm talking about and everybody will think it was awesome and they'll do it."

It may be a while, though.

Little E's remarks came a day before he raced away with his latest win at Talladega Superspeedway, then let his mouth race away with him in Victory Lane, uttering a vulgarity during a postrace TV interview on NBC Sports.

The curse brought a $10,000 fine from NASCAR and, far more important, the loss of 25 points, turning a 13-point lead over Kurt Busch into a 12-point deficit.

His team immediately appealed the points portion of the penalty. The appeal is pending.

NBC is adding a 5-second delay to its NASCAR telecasts because of Earnhardt's vulgarity.

"We're disappointed for our viewers to have to do this, but the delay provides a level of protection against anything inappropriate going out over the air," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Junior will celebrate his birthday Sunday in Kansas as he tries to overcome the loss of points with another strong performance in the Banquet 400.

Earnhardt didn't let the disappointment over the NASCAR penalty spoil his sister Kelley's surprise birthday party for him Tuesday. He got a beautifully wrapped box from crew chief Tony Eury Sr.

Junior pulled out the gift, looking puzzled.

"A muzzle for my dog?" he asked. "No, no," replied Eury. "That ain't for your dog!"

FORMULA ONE: A Ferrari driver has two straight victories entering the Japanese Grand Prix, and it's not Michael Schumacher.

Rubens Barrichello won the Italian Grand Prix and Chinese Grand Prix, taking advantage of some unusual mistakes by his teammate and seven-time world champion in Formula One.

"It's been a coincidence that Michael has been struggling," Barrichello said.

Schumacher has spun in the last two races, and had another spinout in qualifying at the new Shanghai circuit that put him at the back of the pack.

"It was just one of those races you have every so often and everything seems to happen in one weekend," Schumacher said.

Ferrari has 14 victories in 16 races this season.

"At this stage it's important that a Ferrari wins, whether it's Rubens or whether it's me," Schumacher said. "Of course, I would like to be the one."

Added Barrichello, winner of last year's race at Suzuka, Japan: "It's nice to have the wins, but everyone starts from zero."

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