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Victory lifts Earnhardt, his fans
'99 News
Tony Fabrizio - Dallas Morning News

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

(April 29, 1999)
Dale Earnhardt's team and fans were buoyed by their driver's victory last Sunday in the DieHard 500 at Talladega, but it's premature to say the seven-time champion is on his way back as a contender.

Earnhardt, who turns 48 Thursday, has won only two of his last 101 races. Both of those came on the circuit's biggest tracks, where carburetor restrictor plates are used to keep speeds down.

Richard Childress Racing has an excellent restrictor plate engine program that has benefited both Earnhardt and teammate Mike Skinner. Unfortunately for them, only four races a year are run with restrictor plates (two at Daytona and two at Talladega).

It's hard to believe that Earnhardt's last victory in a race without restrictor plates came more than three years ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Heading into Sunday's California 500, Earnhardt is ninth in the standings with just two top-five finishes.

Is Earnhardt at the end of his career, or is it the No. 3 Chevy team that has been struggling? No one can say definitively. The educated guess is that it's a combination of factors.

Said Earnhardt, ``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.''


-- The DieHard 500 win was the first in Winston Cup for crew chief Kevin Hamlin, who started working with Earnhardt with 20 races remaining last year. Hamlin had been with Skinner and the No. 31 team before Childress swapped the crew chiefs on his two cars last June, sending Larry McReynolds to Skinner's team.

``When it first came about, I was like, `Richard, this is not what I want to do,''' Hamlin related this week. ``I'd just as soon have stayed with the low-profile thing, being with Mike Skinner and working our way up. But, really, working with Dale has been great.''

Earnhardt and McReynolds won the Daytona 500 together in 1998, but they struggled after that. One difference made public after the swap was that McReynolds had wanted Earnhardt to spend more time at the race shop in Welcome, N.C. Earnhardt, who keeps an extremely busy schedule because of his many business interests, didn't think it was necessary.

Hamlin says Earnhardt comes into the shop now only about once a month, but nobody complains.

``To me, that's no big deal,'' Hamlin said. ``Larry likes to do things a little different, and that's fine. And it works pretty good for him. With Skinner, when we were the No. 31 shop, Mike was close enough to where he liked to come to the shop maybe once a week if needed. But even his schedule is getting busier.''


-- Who's the best driver in Winston Cup? Well, Jeff Gordon has won three of the last four championships, but he doesn't get Mark Martin's vote. Martin gives the nod to his 31-year-old Roush Racing teammate, current points leader Jeff Burton.

``His car knowledge makes him the best driver on the circuit,'' Martin asserted. ``If you took a bucket of parts and threw it out in the garage for all the drivers to put together, he'd put together a winning race car before most. When you can do that, you hold your future in your hands.''


-- For the graduating senior who has everything, how about a genuine Mark Martin race car? Neiman-Marcus is offering an actually raced No. 6 Valvoline Ford in its new ``Oh Boys, Toys!'' catalog. Of course, the car isn't street legal. It comes with a Roush Racing 352 cubic-inch V-8 engine and VIP credentials to a NASCAR race. Cost: $125,000.


-- Veteran driver Mike Chase of the Irving-based Green Light Racing team leads the Winston West point standings heading into Saturday's California 200 at California Speedway.

Chase, who is from Redding, Calif., and lives in North Carolina, won the Winston West championship in 1994. He has competed in 11 Winston Cup events, including the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 as A.J. Foyt's driver.

Green Light Racing is owned by Gene Christensen, who runs a driving school at California Speedway and has residences in California and Garland. The race shop is in Irving, and four full-time team members live in the Dallas area. They are team manager Andy Woods, engine specialist Rick Johnson, crewman Kevin Simpson and marketing director Mark McGowan.

The team has been operating without major financial support and is seeking sponsors.

Chase has three top-10 finishes in three races and leads Brandon Ash in the standings by seven points. Winston West winners so far this year are Mike Wallace, Bobby Hamilton and Austin Cameron.