left.gif (848 bytes) main.gif (882 bytes)
News The Earnhardt Connection
Text links are located at the bottom of the page.

Is Dale past his prime? True beleivers say, 'No way'
'99 News
David Poole - Motorsports Writer

Dale Earnhardt proudly hoists his trophy from winning round two of IROC on Saturday.

Talladega, Ala. (April 26, 1999)
The Saturday evening gathering to announce a race car's paint scheme was called a news conference.

What it was, however, was a revival meeting.

The Dale Earnhardt faithful gathered to reassure their favorite driver that he was still The Man. One fan was so intent on making Earnhardt -- and anyone else within three counties -- hear the words he actually crouched to brace himself before loosing his yell.

The believers were in a particularly good mood. Earlier Saturday, their stock-car racing icon had won a second straight International Race of Champions event with a second-straight pass for the lead on the last turn of the last lap.

The driver's acolytes also had a spring in their step. Don Hawk, Earnhardt's entrepreneurial abbot, confidently predicted Sunday would be an even brighter day. He would turn out to be a prophet.


A day NASCAR needed

Earnhardt's fans went home from Talladega Superspeedway positively giddy after the seven-time Winston Cup champion's weekend. Saturday's IROC victory was merely a warm-up to Sunday's win in the DieHard 500, a triumph that Earnhardt, his team, his fans and, yes, the sport itself badly needed.

``It amazes me how the fans have stuck with us when we're not winning as much as we need to,'' Earnhardt said after Sunday's victory as fans chanted his name and waited for him to give them a wave through the press box window. ``They've been there, they've stuck with us and they still feel like we can win, like I do.''

Love Earnhardt or hate him, but NASCAR is a much better sport to follow and to cover when the feisty legend from Kannapolis, N.C., is on his game. That's why it's so easy to get caught up in the excitement that follows an Earnhardt victory these days.

Sunday's win was the 72nd of Earnhardt's Winston Cup career, but only the second in 101 races. Aside from them having both come in restrictor-plate races, both wins share a more quirky similarity.


Hollywood connection?

Earnhardt, who turns 48 on Thursday, is going west early this week to do a cameo in a movie before racing at California Speedway next weekend. The day after Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt also went to Hollywood to film a cameo in the regrettable ``Baseketball.'' It seems impossible that the film won't at least be better this time.

Earnhardt certainly wants to make things better when he gets back to racing, too.

After the Daytona victory, the Richard Childress Racing team started taking on water. By midseason, crew chief Larry McReynolds was shuffled off to run Mike Skinner's team. Kevin Hamlin took over as crew chief on the black No. 3 and despite some late season bright spots Earnhardt's fortunes seemed to be sinking.

Earnhardt was second to Jeff Gordon at Daytona this year, but wrecked the next weekend at Rockingham. Things haven't been much better since. Last week at Martinsville, Earnhardt went home with a 19th-place finish and a bad taste in his mouth.

``We've had a real crappy year so far,'' Earnhardt said Sunday.


Delays on new car

Childress' operation has for more than a year been developing the new Monte Carlo that Chevrolet teams originally hoped to debut next month. Delays in getting NASCAR approval pushed that debut back to next season, and Earnhardt says his team has paid a price for that.

``It's a cop out every time you give an excuse,'' he said. ``But really, honestly, the first of this year we were really planning to have that new Monte Carlo in May. We honestly just left the door open with no new race cars coming. We were just redoing some old cars to get through the first part of the year. We're behind because of that.''

The thinking changed once it became clear there would be no new model this year, and now new vehicles of the current model are being readied. Earnhardt plans to race the first of those at California.

``If we don't run well there, then blame it on the driver,'' Earnhardt said of his California car, also the first designed with input from the cooperative aerodynamic effort started this year among teams owned by Childress, Earnhardt and Andy Petree.

Earnhardt knows his fans want to see him at the front of the pack more than just at Daytona and Talladega. He wants to be there, too.

``I want to be racing for the lead with those guys,'' he said. ``I would rather lead a race some and get beat at the end and finish second or third or fourth and said I at least had a shot to win. ... If you race in the top five you will win your share of races. If you don't race in the top five, you're not going to win. That's just a fact.''

Earnhardt says it's also a fact that there's no single reason his team has not been up to its own standards over the past two-plus seasons. ``If the driver is off five one-hundredths of a second, and the chassis is off five one-hundredths, and the engine is off five one-hundredths, that puts you 15 one-hundredths behind the next guy. That's how competitive it is. And those are guys working all of the time to pick it up. It's the whole package; it's not one part or one piece.''

Childress is quick to defend the driver's piece of the puzzle.

``I've had a couple of reporters ask me if I thought Dale was past his prime,'' Childress said. ``I think today should answer a lot of those questions. ... A lot of people questioned him and his ability. When the time comes Dale Earnhardt is going to tell us all, but until then I feel like he can win anywhere for four or five more years or however long he wants to do it.''

Spoken like a true believer.