After all the hoopla this week, all Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted was to get to that blessed moment when he flipped the starter on his No. 8 Chevrolet race car.

"Normally when that motor cranks," Earnhardt explained, "it drowns out all the other thoughts and everything that's going on."

The son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jr. will make his debut in NASCAR's top series in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. It's the first of five Winston Cup races he'll compete in this season -- the maximum he can enter without jeopardizing his rookie status when he moves to the series full-time in 2000.

Dale Jr., 25, couldn't have picked a more glaring spotlight for his big-time debut. Lowe's Motor Speedway sits roughly 12 miles north of Charlotte, the cradle of stock car racing and home to nearly every race shop on the circuit. The track is also about the same distance east of Earnhardt's home and the home of his famous father, who made his own Winston Cup debut at the 1.5-mile superspeedway in 1975, when Dale Jr. was 7 months old.

But as Sunday's race grew nearer this week, it became clear the flood of questions about Junior's debut was taking its toll not only on the youngster, but also on his father. Asked during an interview Thursday about his son's chances in the 600, Earnhardt snapped, "He has to practice more," and walked away.

Earnhardt brought up his three elder children in a strict manner, particularly when it came to their own dreams of racing. He made Kerry, Kelley and Dale Jr. start competing on short dirt tracks in the Carolinas, as he had in the early 1970s. He also made the children work on their own late-model stock cars, as he had. A millionaire many times over, Earnhardt had the means to grease his children's careers. But he refused to do so, making them tow their cars to the tracks, tow them home and bang out the dents after they had wrecked.

Dale Jr. -- known alternately in the garage as "Junior" and "Little E" -- got his big chance last year, when his father named him the driver of his No. 3 Grand National race car. He won seven races, bringing tears to his father's eyes with his first win, at Texas Motor Speedway, and clinching the series championship. Budweiser promptly signed him to a multiyear contract worth more than $50 million to run the beer maker's logo on his Winston Cup car.

Earnhardt Jr.'s first real test against stock car racing's best came in Wednesday night's qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600. He ran the eighth-fastest lap, at 184.407 mph. His father, who has never had much use for qualifying, will start 15th.

"I know qualifying in the top 10 for just one race doesn't mean a lot to some of these other people," Earnhardt Jr. said afterward. "But it's big for us."

Dale Jarrett, the Winston Cup points leader and son of two-time champion Ned Jarrett, knows something about the pressures Dale Jr. faces.

"I wasn't in the limelight that much," Jarrett said. "But there's a certain amount of pressure that comes along with that. . . . When I look at Dale Earnhardt Jr., all I think about is, there's a lot of talent there. And all he can do is do the best that Dale Jr. can do. He shouldn't and can't try to live up to what his dad has done."

In many respects, the son is his own man. Earnhardt loves the Atlanta Braves; Earnhardt Jr. is a die-hard Washington Redskins fan. Earnhardt favors Brooks and Dunn; Earnhardt Jr. jams on Pearl Jam. Earnhardt's hair is thinning; Earnhardt Jr. recently bleached his mop blond.

But he is clearly his father's son when it comes to racing. He's aggressive and has a nose for the finish with 10 laps to go. And he has quickly earned the respect of his peers in the Grand National series, a welcome relief after the years in late-model stocks, when competitors delighted in smashing into him for the right to boast that they had taken out Dale Earnhardt's son.

Sunday's race will mark the first time father and son have faced each other in a Winston Cup points race. They dueled in a NASCAR exhibition race in Japan in November, with Junior finishing sixth, two places ahead of his father. But Earnhardt posted the better finish in each of the two IROC races they've run together this year.

"Six hundred miles, I'm sure we'll run into each other sooner or later," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We'll have a lot of fun with it. And I'm sure he's going to have a lot of laughs watching me try to wheel that thing around there, and I'm sure my jaw will be on the floor watching him wheel his around."