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Junior looks to recreate magic of 2000 All-Star Race

May 19, 2012, Joe Menzer,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Earnhardt looks back on 'great memories' from All-Star win 12 years ago

Like so many other aspects of his early racing career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made winning NASCAR's All-Star Race look all too easy during his first attempt at it in 2000.

That was 12 years ago, and Earnhardt wants to clear up one misconception.

"[My fans] do a lot of campaigning for me on the Internet. I appreciate it, I really do. But even for them, I think it would mean a lot more if I could race my way in. "


"It wasn't easy," Earnhardt said Friday as he relaxed in his No. 88 hauler. "We started the last segment and we were running maybe in the top 10, but not really all that good. We didn't look like we were going to win."

So the then-rookie Cup driver and his crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., made a critical decision.

"We ran maybe four laps and they had a crash or something," Earnhardt said. "The car was real tight and I told Tony Sr. we weren't going to win the race the way the car was -- and that if he wanted to win the race, he needed to do something and we needed to do it now. So he said, 'OK, bring it on in and we'll put four tires on it.' "

It may not have been a cold and calculating decision, but it ended up being a crucial one.

"We didn't feel like we were making that decision so that we were going to win the race. We just felt like we were doing everything we could to give ourselves an opportunity. I know you hear it so often, but it's so true. If you can't win that race, it doesn't matter if you're second or last. Just do everything you can to see if you can get up there and go for it.

"So we were like, 'OK, let's put four tires on it and see what that does.' Tires were kind of big back then, I guess, and it made a big difference."

If Earnhardt had no misconceptions then about the ease with which it took to get to Victory Lane back then, he surely has none now. He last won a Cup points race in June of 2008. To have a shot at the $1 million prize that goes to the winner of Saturday's All-Star Race, he'll want to make the right decisions that can get him in as one of the top two finishers in the preliminary Sprint Showdown race.

But that's not his last chance at entry.

A third driver will also advance to the main event via fan vote, which most figure Earnhardt will easily lock up to appear in his 13th consecutive All-Star Race.

"And there's nothing wrong with that -- that's just the way it is," fellow driver Regan Smith said.

Considering Earnhardt has been voted Most Popular Driver by NASCAR fans for nine years running, Smith makes a valid point. But Earnhardt admitted Friday that he would much rather race his way in versus getting voted in by his legion of loyal fans.

"I know my fans put a lot of effort into voting -- whether it's getting me into this race or voting me Most Popular Driver," Earnhardt said. "They do a lot of campaigning for me on the Internet. I appreciate it, I really do. But even for them, I think it would mean a lot more if I could race my way in.

"It's nice to have the votes as a safety net -- but if I could legitimately get in this race by driving my way in this weekend or by winning a race [to qualify automatically for next year's All-Star Race], it would mean more."

Such brazen talk takes him back to the days of 2000, when he wasn't pestered so much by folks wanting to know when he's going to get to Victory Lane next.

"We just were excited to be in the race. I remember when we won in Texas [to qualify for the event]. That's what we talked about in Victory Lane probably more than anything, that we were in the All-Star event," Earnhardt said. "We hadn't even considered ourselves that fortunate as a team, and we were sort of rising up through the ranks so quickly.

All-Star fever

Getting ramped up for the 2012 Sprint All-Star Race? Make sure you check in on the race site for both the Sprint Fan Vote and all the information on the eligible drivers.

"So, when we got to the All-Star race itself, we were just enjoying the whole experience. Being able to compete against the upper teams, the qualifying, and just being out on the track with that group, that puts you in another tier and gained us a lot of confidence and respect. We were just happy to be a part of that."

Some members of his team simply had bigger plans than even the driver himself.

"I know Tony Sr. and [car chief] Tony [Eury] Jr. were thinking about winning the race as soon as the gates opened, but I really didn't imagine that being a reality until that last segment," Earnhardt said. "I think we started off a couple of laps and the car wasn't going to get it done and we made the choice to come and get those tires and it took off. It was a wild evening and just storybook for me. It's one of the great memories for me."

Earnhardt would love to forge another one Saturday night. He's one of 22 drivers who first will have to compete in the Showdown because they failed to automatically qualify for the All-Star Race by either winning a points race in the previous year, or by being a winner of the All-Star Race within the previous 10 years. Earnhardt's decade-long exemption for winning it in 2000 expired last year.

So, while spoils of that victory have pretty much disappeared, the memory still remains. And that's a motivator.

"It was a really fun experience, really similar to what I would imagine a football player experiences getting to go to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl for the first time," Earnhardt said. "The invite alone, or the ability to be in the race alone, is a proud thing by itself. To go through the pageantry and experience of it, and the buildup of it, it's fun for you and your team. For you and your guys to even be in the race is a bit of a confidence-booster that you're part of that elite group. It does a lot of good things for you.

"Then, to win it, that's just an awesome feeling. ... Winning this kind of event this weekend would do wonders for our race team."

Road to $1 million

• The Sprint All-Star Race consists of five segments, of 20, 20, 20, 20 and 10 laps.
• Twenty drivers are automatically qualified, as either race winners from 2011 and '12 or past champions of the All-Star event. Two more will transfer via the top two positions in the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap preliminary race, and another through a fan vote.
• Before the second, third and fourth segments of the All-Star Race, there is an optional pit stop in which teams may elect to pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments. Teams pitting will not retain their position on the track.
• Before the final segment, there is a mandatory pit stop in which teams may pit for fuel, tires and chassis adjustments. Tires are not mandatory during the stop. The winners of the first four segments will move to the front of the field prior to the final segment, and be the first cars coming to pit road.
• Prior to the final segment, cars will line up in the order in which they exited pit road.

* Sound Off: Earnhardt reflects on 2000 win, ponders another All-Star victory