Dale Earnhardt still carries a wide following of fans
who are confident he still has what it takes to grab an eighth title.
Ala. (April 26, 1999)
Some people were ready to write off Dale Earnhardt. Car
owner Richard Childress wasn't one of them.
``Dale Earnhardt is the best,'' Childress said after
Earnhardt broke a 40-race winless streak Sunday with a dominating victory in the DieHard
500. ``If anybody gives up on him, they've lost their mind.''
His fans didn't give up. They were joyous after Earnhardt
drove his signature black No. 3 Chevrolet to victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
As Earnhardt sat high above the front straightaway with his
back to the big pressbox windows after the race, hundreds of his fans stood below
chanting: ``Earn-hardt, Earn-hardt.''
Between answers to numerous questions, Earnhardt would half
turn in his seat and, grinning widely, wiggle his fingers at the crowd, drawing a roar
that made his smile even bigger.
But he happily shared the spotlight with Childress and Kevin
Hamlin, who got his first Winston Cup win since becoming Earnhardt's crew chief midway
through last season.
The victory -- only Earnhardt's second in the past 101 starts
-- was a relief for Richard Childress Racing and for Earnhardt, who will be 48 Thursday.
Still, like his car owner, he said it was other people who
were worrying, not him.
``It's not been tough on me,'' Earnhardt said. ``It's tougher
on you guys, keeping the stats and asking the questions. We just race from week to week
and try to win the next week.
``We don't walk around and look at each other and say, `It's
been a week since we won, It's been 100 weeks since you won.' ... We know. We talk about
it. We race to try to fix that the next race.''
His competitors just laugh when asked if Earnhardt has lost
``I wish,'' said Rusty Wallace, who was among the top
contenders Sunday until getting caught up in a wild, nine-car wreck. ``I'd still rather
have just about anybody on my tail then him. And getting around him when he's leading late
in a race ... forget it.''
Dale Jarrett is the latest driver to try -- and fail.
Jarrett had four laps on the 2.66-mile Talladega oval in
Earnhardt's wake. With help from Mark Martin, the two Fords couldn't make a dent in the
two car-length lead that Earnhardt took with him under the checkered flag.
``In front or behind, I don't care to have him either
place,'' Jarrett said of ``The Intimidator.''
``He's a hard man to pass. He's good at anticipating.
``I peddled back to Mark a little to try to get a little
push, and Earnhardt peddled right back with me. He's smart and he knows what to do.''
Earnhardt, who moved into a tie for ninth in the standings
with teammate Mike Skinner, says his top priority is winning a record eighth Winston Cup
Since he last won a championship in 1994, the number of
doubters has grown. The wins come harder and the top-10 finishes have been less frequent.
The convincing win Sunday obviously was a big
confidence-booster for Earnhardt and his team.
``Richard Childress and all the crew needed this win,''
Earnhardt said. ``We want to work on the points ... That's why you're here, racing to win
and racing for championships.''
The low-key Hamlin, who sat calmly by Earnhardt's side Sunday
as darkness fell behind them, said, ``We've been close, but in this sport you can't just
be close. You've got to be right on. Hopefully, we can carry some of this momentum
Earnhardt is aware that two top-five finishes in the first
nine races isn't good enough.
``We've had a lousy year so far, but I think it's going to
turn around for us,'' he said. ``We've got some good cars coming out now and we've got a
brand new car for California (the California 500 at Fontana Sunday).
``If it doesn't run good, it's going to be the driver's