For more than a decade, Dale Earnhardt was the favorite to win each Daytona 500 and didn't. He would win practically everything else during SpeedWeeks, but not the 500. Then, in 1998, coming off his first winless NASCAR Winston Cup season in 16 years and with very little prerace fanfare and hype, Earnhardt won the missing jewel.
I have the same gut feeling about the prospects of Earnhardt winning a record eighth champion-ship this season-well, I did in late July. One of the great disadvantages-maybe risks is a better word-of writing for a magazine is lead time. That is, more than two months are required to get this from me to you. Situations can change as rapidly as the weather, and I can wind up looking like a donkey. So I can't know about October.
But at this writing, Earnhardt is stirring my juices and those of his army of thousands who want to see him break the seven-title tie with King Richard Petty. Earnhardt seemed to have the best opportunity to accomplish that feat since he was runner-up to Jeff Gordon in 1995, and The Intimidator, along with Richard Childress' Goodwrench Chevrolet team, once Winston Cup's benchmark, appear to be championship material again. The most important ingredient, consistency, has been restored. In the final seven of the first 19 races, Earnhardt ranked no lower than third in the standings; in five straight races, he was second.
Given that Earnhardt is 49 years old and hasn't won a title in five years, he may not be the favorite. There was no hullabaloo surrounding him in late July as there was in the early '90s when he was champion four of the first five years of the decade. The remarkable success of rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shifted the focus on Earnhardt more as a proud father than as a driver, and there's another offspring, Kerry, 30, or "Middle E.," rising through the ranks. "I've had my share of the press," Earnhardt says. "It's time for somebody else."
Intimidating The OddsOf course, the odds are against Earnhardt winning another championship. No one, certainly in the sport's modern era, has won it all at age 49. The late Lee Petty was 45 when he won his third championship in 1959. Bobby Allison was 45 when he won his first and only in 1983. Richard Petty won his last of seven at age 42 in 1979. David Pearson was 34 in 1969, Buck Baker 38 in 1957, and Cale Yarborough 38 in 1978. Among active drivers, Darrell Waltrip was 38 when he won his third championship in 1985, Terry Labonte 40 in 1996, and Dale Jarrett 43 in 1999. Earnhardt was 43 in 1994.
But Earnhardt is a master at beating the odds. Some wrote him off in 1992 when he won only one race and plummeted to 12th in the points chase, the first time he had finished out of the top 10 in nine years. Then he rebounded to consecutive titles and has finished no lower than eighth in the standings since. Considering his record, anything below second or third is a bad year.
And Earnhardt continues to win races, though not as many. Last year, at age 48, he logged three wins and three seconds. Few drivers, if any, have won a Winston Cup race past age 47. Lee Petty in 1961 and Richard Petty in 1984 were 47. Bobby Allison was 50 when he won the Daytona 500 in 1988, a few months before his career-ending accident. Buck Baker won the Southern 500 at 45 in 1964, when most people felt he was over the hill. Yarborough won for the final time at age 45.
No one took charge of the points race in the first 19 races of 2000. No one was choking on Jeff Gordon's exhaust. Bobby Labonte led the points standings for 16 races, but by less than 100 points most of the time. There was no clear favorite. Dale Jarrett, definitely a strong contender to repeat, had more top fives and top 10s than Labonte, but the latter was more consistent. Sophomore sensation Tony Stewart was winless and 10th in points after the first dozen races, then won three times and soared to a sixth ranking. Other top 10 contenders-Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace, Ward Burton, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Ricky Rudd-were up and down. Only 268 points separated first and fifth place. Earnhardt has as good a shot as anybody.
Why? Two prime reasons: Earnhardt has more confidence in crew chief Kevin Hamlin and his team, and he is healthy.
"I think our whole program has come together this year," Earnhardt says. "The team is more solid than it has been in past years. Kevin is more my type and style of crew chief. He's a man of few words and is constantly thinking. He's not one to blow up, kick and scream. He sits down and listens to what I say and tries to make improvements. He never quits. He's so much like Kirk Shelmerdine (former crew chief who led Earnhardt to 41 victories and four titles at RCR through 1992). I love Larry McReynolds as a person. We won the Daytona 500 together. But I work better with Kevin.
"The new Monte Carlo has helped us on downforce," Earnhardt continues. "Our crew has been fine-tuned and moved around to the point that everyone wants to be where he is. I want to be there. Over the years that I've driven for Childress, I've been offered bigger deals, but I've stayed because I'm with somebody who wants to win as badly as I do. I feel like that is the package we have this year. We want to overcome. Our pit stops were not good at the first of the season, but we've worked on that and gotten them to where they're as good as anybody's."
Earnhardt had surgery during the off-season on neck vertebrae that were damaged and subsequently aggravated in two crashes at Talladega, the latest in 1997, and says he is pain-free.
"I was hurting for the past two years and probably didn't realize it was affecting me until it got worse," Earnhardt says. "That's over with. I'm healthy. The team is healthy. The championship is there for us. It's ours to capitalize on-to move forward and get those top fives. If we can keep on doing what we've been doing and get close enough to put pressure on Bobby and Jarrett, we'll be in good shape.
"There's a lot of pressure on the leader as well as those trying to catch him. I enjoy pressure. I thrive on it, and that could work to my advantage in a showdown."
Earnhardt considers Labonte and Jarrett the top contenders. "Most of them in the top 10 (at 19 races) can be a threat," Earnhardt says, "but I think we're going to be racing the #18 (Labonte) and #88 (Jarrett) for the championship. I don't think we'll see one team excel and win several races. It seems to be the type of race where you've got to be up front in every race to be a contender. You can't afford many Bristols (finished 39th) and second Poconos (25th after nine consecutive top 10s). I'm not counting points now (in August). I'll wait until closer to the end, add them up, and see where we stand."
The Desire Still BurnsEarnhardt has started more than 600 Winston Cup races and with 75 wins has little left to conquer. Still, he has lost none of his fire and desire and gets excited when he cranks up.
"I'm just going through the motions in practice and preparations," he says. "I'm on an even plane when it comes to excitement, except on race day. The better shot I have at winning, the more excited I am. And I'm pretty excited this year. I'm not content with not winning. If somebody tells you I'm riding out my years, they're not paying attention."
It seems to be a fun year for Earnhardt. He seems more relaxed, and perhaps that's why some people are lulled into thinking he is not as serious about his career. He has derived a great deal of pleasure from the racing success of Dale Jr. and now the emergence of Kerry, but their careers are not a distraction.
"I'm proud and excited about my kids," Earnhardt says, "but that doesn't replace me winning races. That's what I'm driven to do. I get up in the mornings to race. I reckon I've got the best of two worlds-I'm a winning driver and a winning car owner. Look around. There aren't many people who have done that and done it the way I have.
"I'm so damned fortunate to have grown up in a family that raced. To get into it without a lot of means and resources and accomplish what I have, then have your kids come along with you is pretty awesome. I didn't force Dale Jr. to race-the kid wanted to. I'd just as soon that he'd have been a doctor or a preacher."
Of all Earnhardt has accomplished, he would appear greedy if he told us how much he wants the eighth championship. It would very likely be a last hurrah as a driver-a fitting crown to an illustrious career. The chances were very real in August.
If not this year, is there enough time? "I've got four years of racing left, at least," says Earnhardt. "If physically and mentally I can't do this, if I can't beat the next guy or win a race, then I'll stop. My reflexes and health will tell me when. I don't see that happening in the next three years."
On that point those who love and hate Dale Earnhardt might agree.