By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When it comes to the Budweiser Shootout, the leaf doesn't fall far from the tree.
The late Dale Earnhardt dominated what began as the Busch Clash before it was renamed in 1998, winning six times in the first 17 episodes of what has become a staple of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway since it began in 1979.
Like father, like son, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. has picked up the Shootout mantle from his late father, winning twice since 2003, including last year's emotional triumph in his first race for Hendrick Motorsports.
Even though the Shootout is a non-points race, it still carries a great deal of significance for Earnhardt Jr., not only because he approaches it like any other race, to win, but also because it reminds him of his father's success in the Clash/Shootout.
Even now, nearly eight years following his late father's tragic death in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, not one day goes by that Junior doesn't think of his father.
"Yep, every day, because that was part of my life," Junior said. "He was an awesome S.O.B."
Junior's angst that it was here at DIS that his father lost his life at a far-too-young age of 49 has softened over the ensuing eight years.
Instead of being angry or holding a grudge at the track, Junior now uses every return visit here as a memorial of sorts to his father, feeling that the best way to remember him is to emulate some of his feats.
"I think about him the same way you would, just in conversation, something he did, something cool he did on the track, something he won or how he won it or what he said," Earnhardt said. "(I) think about that all the time."
That's why Earnhardt is excited to attempt to defend his win in last year's Shootout. He went on to win one of the two Twin 150 races a few days after that, only to watch his performance in the regular season be far different – mediocre at best.
"I'd grade last year about a C," Earnhardt said. "I was a little disappointed in how it ended; pretty disappointed, actually. We should have done a lot better in the Chase. I anticipated being stronger in the Chase and we weren't nowhere near as good."
Some critics said the reason Earnhardt failed to impress last season was going from a relaxed atmosphere at the company his late father founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc., to a more buttoned-down, business-like tone at Hendrick Motorsports. In so doing, Junior may have tried to over-compensate in shifting from a free-wheeling, easy-going type to more of a stiff, tense persona.
"I think tense wouldn't be the way to describe it," Earnhardt affirmed. "I was nervous but not tense. Tense, to me, is a sort of a negative nervous. I was apprehensive and excited, but I was unsure in some areas – where now I know I've got a idea of what to expect and how well I feel we may be able to perform."
The first-year jitters and nervousness of his highly-publicized move from DEI to HMS for the 2008 season are now past history.
"I feel a little more comfortable and a little less concerned," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt feels so much more comfortable coming into his sophomore season for HMS that he's making a bold prediction about Saturday night's race.
"I think I am the man to beat," Earnhardt said with no hesitation in his voice. "They have put more cars in the race (28 cars, with six representatives of each of the four major manufacturers, as well as four wildcard entries), which makes it more of a challenge. It sort of lessens everyone's odd a little bit.
"It is going to be quite a challenge. You just have to put yourself in the right position at the end. I feel like I know what to do."
Tony Stewart couldn't have said it better.
"(Junior) always has been the guy here," Stewart said. "He's picked up where his father left off as a restrictor plate driver. He knows the air very well."
But Earnhardt doesn't want another Shootout win if it means he'll go on to another mediocre season like last year that saw him win just one race – albeit it did break a 76-race winless streak – and a last-place finish (12th) in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"We need to do better than that, but I don't really know what to put my finger on for what we need to do better," he said. "We just need to show up at the race track and see what's up and how we do."
Rather, he's hoping to do in 2009 what he wasn't able to do in 2008: use a win in the Shootout as a springboard towards a potential championship-contending season.
"The last three years, I haven't really done the things that I thought I would be doing and haven't competed like I felt I should be competing," Earnhardt said. "I felt like I was on an upswing ever since I started in the Cup Series in 2000 all the way to 2004.
"I made some choices and I let some other people make some choices and I started to go in the wrong direction performance-wise. That has been the biggest hurdle to try to get over. The biggest thing to try to reverse it."
Indeed, Earnhardt has ridden a roller coaster of performance since his first win in the Shootout in 2003. He finished third in the season that season, fifth in 2004, suffered through the most miserable season of his career to date in 2005 (finished 19th and missed the Chase), rebounded to fifth in 2006, missed the Chase again in 2007 (finished 16th) and, even though he made the Chase last season, was never even a factor.
The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet Impala can't wait for the green flag to drop Saturday night. He's more than ready – not just to earn a third Shootout victory, but also to kick off a season that he hopes will make last year a distant memory.
"We kind of have an idea that we are a pretty good team," Earnhardt said. "We make a few adjustments, do some things right, catch a few breaks and we are a great team. We are going to try and make that happen this year. I feel pretty comfortable, no real worries."