Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet will sport a decal on the rear deck lid this weekend promoting the Nov.18 pay-per-view boxing match between super featherweights Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao and Erik “El Terrible” Morales.
That seems like a fitting sponsorship for Junior, who has taken his share of hard knocks in life and in racing. And, like a good fighter, he’s managed to answer the bell after tough times during his eight seasons in NASCAR Cup racing.
Last weekend’s Herculian effort at Texas Motor Speedway probably epitomizes Junior’s ability to bounce back from adversity. Earnhardt suffered from strep throat, sore joints and a bout of heartburn during the Dickies 400, making it hard to concentrate from lap to lap in the seventh race in NASCAR’s Chase for the championship. He eventually smacked the wall with his Chevy and dropped to 34th.
He pulled into the pits six times and his crew feverishly worked to make the Chevy right. He managed to work his way through the field to finish sixth.
And with two races left in the Chase, including Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix
International Raceway, Earnhardt remains in the championship hunt — in third place, 78 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson — thanks to his resiliency in Texas.
Overcoming adversity has become standard operating procedure for the son of the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Sr.
“I grew up watching my dad overcome a lot of stuff,” Earnhardt said Thursday during an appearance at Casino Arizona on the Salt River Pima - Maricopa Indian Community. “If I don’t try to overcome things and try to get past things, I feel like I’m not meeting the standard there. He set a pretty high one, and I don’t have a problem trying to follow that.”
Earnhardt has had plenty of practice. Consider:
• He failed to qualify for NASCAR’s 10-driver, 10-race playoff last season, and his critics tagged him as overrated and wondered if he would ever win a championship. He quieted the naysayers by qualifying for the Chase this season.
• During practice for a Le Mans sports car race in 2004, he crashed his car, igniting a full tank of gas on board. He suffered serious burns to his face, neck and legs. He could have sat out a few Cup races to recover, but he was back in a Cup car the next weekend and raced 60 laps before being replaced by a substitute driver. His quick return helped ensure his spot in the inaugural Chase playoffs.
• In 2001 at the Daytona 500, his father, Dale Sr., crashed and died while protecting the lead for the two Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars at the front driven by race winner Michael Waltrip and Junior, who finished second. The younger Earnhardt pondered giving up racing after his father’s death. Yet he plodded on. The next week he was entered in the DuraLube 400.
There likely will be plenty more bouts with adversity ahead for Earnhardt. Fortythree cars going really fast and fighting for the same groove in the asphalt will usually provide a healthy dose of problems.
But Earnhardt said, he’s finally feeling like a championship contender. If he wins the Nextel Cup?
“It would be huge for me, it would be awesome for the sport,” Earnhardt said. “There’s no denying that we have a large group of fans that support us that would enjoy going to work and having that (title) to brag for the rest of the winter. It surely would make my life crazy for a couple of weeks.”
And that would be a problem Earnhardt wouldn’t mind having.
NASCAR at PIR
10 a.m. — Gates open
10:15 a.m. — NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series qualifying (two laps, all positions)
11:35 a.m.-1:05 p.m. — NASCAR Nextel Cup Series practice
1:15-2:15 p.m. — NASCAR Busch Series practice
2:30-3 p.m. — NASCAR Busch Series rookie practice
3:10 p.m. — NASCAR Nextel Cup qualifying (two laps, all positions) Followed by — Busch Series final practice (one hour, time permitting)
6:15 p.m. — NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race, Casino Arizona 150 (150 miles, 150 laps)
8 a.m. — Gates open
8:50-9:50 a.m. — NASCAR Nextel Cup Series practice
10:05 a.m. — NASCAR Busch Series qualifying (two laps, all positions)
12:05-12:50 p.m. — NASCAR Nextel Cup final practice
1:40 p.m. — NASCAR Busch Series race, Arizona.Travel 200 (200 miles, 200 laps)
8 a.m. — Gates open
1:30 p.m. — NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race, Checker Auto Parts 500 (312 miles, 312 laps) -