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Earnhardt expects to contend again
'99 News
Jeff Owens, Winston Cup Scene

Dale Earnhardt's last win was in the 1998 Daytona 500, but he believes more will come soon.

(February 25, 1999) Richard Childress watches Dale Earnhardt walk through the garage at Daytona International Speedway and he can't help but smile. Just the fact that Earnhardt can walk without grimacing in pain is satisfying. But to Childress, there is more to it than that.

Earnhardt, 47, is walking with a confident stride and a twinkle in his eye. It is the kind of swagger Childress grew accustomed to during their decade as the best team in the sport, in which Earnhardt won six NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships between 1986 and 1994. It's an air of confidence he hasn't seen from Earnhardt in a while.

Childress is happy because now both his drivers, Earnhardt and Mike Skinner, are not only healthy, but completely focused on racing and confident they can turn Richard Childress Racing into a consistent winner again.

"They've both got that bounce in their step when they are walking through that garage area," Childress says. "You get 'em like that, and these guys will be tough."

With the dawn of a new season, hopes are high throughout the NASCAR Winston Cup Series garage. There was so much optimism at Daytona that it seemed contagious.

Nowhere is it more evident than at RCR, which is trying desperately to shake off one of the worst seasons in its history and return to the top of the sport it ruled for a decade.

From 1986 until Jeff Gordon's emergence in 1995, Earnhardt and Childress were the team to beat in NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing. But no one has fallen farther faster in the last three years. After a 1997 slump that saw Earnhardt go winless for the first time in 15 years, he won just once last season and slipped to eighth in points. It was his lowest finish in the standings since 1992 and only the second time in 13 seasons he has ended the year outside the top-5.

With just one NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory in his last 92 races entering this season, many have already written off Earnhardt, labeling him a has-been and practically planning his farewell tour for him. And with only a surprising Daytona 500 victory in his defense, the evidence is overwhelming.

But when Childress looks into the eyes of the seven-time champion, he sees at least one more title run in the man known as "The Intimidator."

"I know Dale Earnhardt probably as good as anybody," Childress says. "We talked at the end of the year about getting everybody in shape, and he's ready to go. I see that desire when I'm talking to him. He's still got the desire to win."

Many questioned Earnhardt's desire last year, especially after an early-season slump forced Childress to swap crew chiefs between his two teams. Larry McReynolds, who left Earnhardt to work with Skinner, questioned whether Earnhardt was focused on racing and suggested that he paid too much attention to the race teams he owns and to his other business interests.

The questions and criticism angered Earnhardt, perhaps providing the motivation needed to return to the top. The struggles he has faced in the past two years have definitely made him more determined to prove he's not done.

"It doesn't make you proud to have a season like we did (last year)," he says. "You're not totally out of it because you finished in the top-10 in points, but still, it's a situation where you can't win the championship if you're not competitive, if you don't finish in the top-5 and you don't race for wins. That's where our team is working hard to get back to."

Childress says Earnhardt is more focused than ever entering the 1999 season. He worked out during the off-season, improving his physical condition, and also has made more of an effort to communicate with his team.

"If you look at his physical shape ... it's easy to get out of shape," Childress says. "But you look at him, and he's in good physical shape, and I think his mental attitude right now going into this season is the best it's been in three or four years. He's kinda got everything set now. He's got the deal with Dale Jr. set, so he's kinda saying, 'OK, now I want to focus on everything we've got to do to win a championship.'"

Earnhardt is among the busiest people in racing, tending to an empire that is worth tens of millions and helping guide the career of his younger son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. But he knows that to be competitive again, he must make more time for his crew at Richard Childress Racing.

"We never find enough time," Earnhardt says. "Richard is as busy as I am when you try to find him. We're both as busy as we can be. (But) we try to jump on a helicopter and get there and try to get everything done that we have to do.

"Even if you don't have to change anything on the race car, you just go through the shop and visit and make sure everybody is excited about what's going on. That's a big part of it. I know it makes a difference when I go to the shop."

"We've been talking more. He was at the shop a week or two ago," Childress says. "I know it's tough. With the amount of sponsors I have on the 31 and the 3 and the truck team, we all have more things to do. The difference is that he is the only person who can drive that car. I can hire crew chiefs and mechanics and everything to really make our program go, but he's got to drive it.

"It's like Rick Hendrick. He's been out of the pocket for two years, but they've won two championships."

For 11 years, Earnhardt was a perennial championship contender. He and Childress won six titles from 1986 to 1994 and finished second twice. The only year he wasn't a threat during that span was 1992, when he slumped to 12th.

He won back-to-back titles in 1993 and 1994, but was surprisingly beaten by Gordon in 1995, signaling the dawn of a new era. In 1996, Earnhardt slumped to fourth, 330 points out of first. In 1997, when Gordon won his second title, he finished fifth, 494 points behind.

Last year was a disaster. After winning Daytona, he scored just four more top-5 finishes the rest of the season, the fewest of his career. After 14 races, he had just four top-10 finishes and had fallen to 12th in points. By June, he was already 411 points out of first, prompting Childress to make drastic changes to his team.

Earnhardt improved slightly under crew chief Kevin Hamlin, scoring nine top-10s in the second half of the season and climbing to eighth in points. He still led just 273 laps (148 of them in two races at Daytona), however, and finished a staggering 1,400 points out of the championship hunt.

Childress attributes the downfall of his team to two things: Injuries and a loss of several key employees over the past five years.

In the past three years, Earnhardt has been hampered by a variety of injuries, beginning with a broken sternum he suffered in a crash at Talladega in July 1996.

"What people don't remember is that we were leading the points and leading the race when he got hurt," Childress said. "We were right there until he got hurt. People just don't realize what that does to you until you get in that situation."

In the past three years, Earnhardt has been involved in three end-over-end crashes that have left him battered and bruised. Another end-over-end crash at Talladega last season caused second-degree burns on his neck and face.

"One of our biggest problems last year is that both race drivers were hurt," Childress said. "Mike got hurt and then Dale got hurt at Talladega, then he got hurt at Charlotte, then the next week he got hurt at Charlotte again.

"I had three trips to the hospital with Dale and I made two trips to the hospital with Mike. I'm not making no excuses, but both those guys were really hurt. And I think driving hurt and feeling bad probably added a little salt to the wound between the crew chiefs. The crew chiefs were both feeling great and they were ready to go, and those drivers were both hurt. Mike Skinner is lucky to be here if you look at his cars and what he went through."

"It just seems like in the last couple of years that we've had some turns of events that hasn't allowed us to be in the top-5 every race," Earnhardt said.

Another factor, Childress said, has been turnover. In the late '80s and early '90s, Earnhardt had one of the strongest crews in racing. Crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine left in '92, however, to pursue his own driving career. Childress replaced him with Andy Petree in '93, and the No. 3 team promptly won two more championships and finished second in 1995.

But Petree left following the 1995 season to join car owner Leo Jackson and eventually purchased that team. Over the next three seasons, many of Earnhardt's top crewmen left and moved to other teams. The mass exodus continued last year when McReynolds took over, forcing Earnhardt to work with what amounted to a whole new crew.

"I feel like we let him down a little bit with the crew chief thing, and you can't control people," Childress said. "It happens to all successful teams. It's tough when you're winning to keep key people."

McReynolds has won 23 races with five different drivers, but his hands-on style did not appeal to Earnhardt, who seems to work better with the quiet, laid-back Hamlin.

"There is a lot to how that crew chief and driver communicate," Childress says. "And Kevin's style is so different, going back to even Kirk and Andy. Larry's style is perfect for a Mike Skinner, or I could name you three or four other drivers that Larry McReynolds' style of crew chiefing would be perfect for, but Kevin is more laid-back, and that seems to work better with Dale."

"I try to be comfortable with anybody I work with," Earnhardt says. "You try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and all the focus you can, but personalities are a lot, and the way people work with people is a lot different.

"Larry and I and the team just didn't seem to really pull together close. When they made the change, it made everybody step back and take a look and see what was going on. Kevin and I just sort of had a better relationship or thought processes. We ended up talking about the same things and we're more comfortable with each other."

Earnhardt and Hamlin won their first race together this season, the second Gatorade 125-Mile Qualifying Race at Daytona, then finished second in the Daytona 500. It was Earnhardt's 10th straight victory in a qualifying race at Daytona and his first victory with Hamlin.

"I'd like for it to have been about the 10th victory with him, honestly," Earnhardt said. "I think Kevin and myself have gotten better and better as we've gone along. We were confident all week. We've won a lot of races with different people, but it makes a lot of difference, the crew chief does, with how hard they work and what they put into it and how prepared they are. I feel good about what we're seeing."

So does Childress. He believed Earnhardt and Hamlin were on the verge of turning things around in last season's final four races, when they finished 10th at Daytona, third at Phoenix, ninth at Rockingham and 13th at Atlanta.

"The communication between Dale and Kevin and the team prior to getting to the track and then when the race started has been good, and just watching Dale stay up on that steering wheel," Childress said. "We had the car close enough to where I could see it. We had real strong runs in the last four races and I could see the deal with Dale and Kevin coming together, and all of us feel strongly about that."

Childress made several more changes over the winter to improve his team's chances. He hired two new engineers, reorganized his fabrication shop and, perhaps most importantly, created a new program designed to share aerodynamic data with Andy Petree Racing and Earnhardt's own Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team.

The aerodynamic program, headed by former Ford engineer Louis Duncan, is already paying off in the wind tunnel, Earnhardt says.

"We didn't really realize what we had in some places," Earnhardt said. "We're starting to understand the aerodynamics better, and I think it will help us before we even get to the track. We've invested quite a bit in that program."

"We're working hard to put this team back to where it was," Childress says. "Whether it will ever get there, I don't know. But I know what we're doing to get it there, with money and everything we're doing. And you can't do it with just money. If you could, several other teams would have done it. We're trying to make the right decisions on people, programs, engineering, wind tunnel and everything else.

"I think now we've got some good people and we're trying to put our program back where he can do his job. If we give him the equipment and get him comfortable, he'll race 'em, and we can get back into the championship hunt."

The question is, can they improve enough to challenge Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team, which has raised the level of competition higher than it's ever been?

Childress knows it will be difficult, but Earnhardt has no doubt he can be a contender again.

"The 24 is the team to beat for the championship," Earnhardt says. "Jeff's a great driver, but he's got a good race team. You've got to hand it to them. They've got everything going, the momentum, the confidence. But you've got a lot of great race teams in the garage that could be a contender, and I definitely want to be one of them.

"Give me the equipment and give me the team in the shape where it needs to be and we can win races and we can win championships, and that's what we're going to do."