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A healthy Earnhardt looks to regain form
'99 News
Lee Spencer

Dover, Del. (June 7, 1999)
Dale Earnhardt apologized for the delay.

"Thanks for coming back," said the ever-intimidating Mr. Earnhardt. "Had some business to take care of earlier."

That’s OK, because he’s Dale Earnhardt and he still commands respect. He still believes he can be competitive every Sunday. And more than ever, he still knows how to win.

The partnership between Earnhardt and Richard Childress has thrived for 16 seasons, longer than any other in the Winston Cup garage and has produced six championships, 65 victories and more than $30 million in winnings.

Although the No. 3 team struggled following a devastating crash at Talladega in July 1996 -- where Earnhardt broke his collarbone and sternum -- the seven-time champ came back two weeks later and miraculously won his 22nd career pole on the 2.45 miles road course at Watkin’s Glen.

But, the team continued to suffer. In 1997, the team went winless for the first time in its existence. In 1998, Earnhardt captured the ultimate victory that had eluded him his entire career -- the Daytona 500.

The success was short-lived. Earnhardt fell to 13th in points by the spring Dover race. A change had to be made, and Kevin Hamlin assumed the role of crew chief.

The program has made aggressive strides since then and although the team dropped to an uncharacteristic 20th in points after Darlington this season, in the last seven races the No. 3 has posted five top-10 finishes -- including Earnhardt’s 72nd career win at Talladega in April. and has moved within 37 points of sixth place.

"The guys have been working hard all along," said Earnhardt. "There’s been a lot of hard work and dedication. I think Kevin (crew chief Hamlin) and myself are working better together. The guys are doing better on pit row and pit stops. It’s not one small thing, but a combination of things that has made a difference."

Two major developments which have delivered significant returns this season has been the addition of RAD -- the engineering coop between Richard Childress, Andy Petree and Earnhardt -- and Childress’ decision to rearrange the No. 3’s pit crew.

"We’ve turn around with the aerodynamics program," Earnhardt said. "After we saw that they weren’t going to give us the ‘99 Monte Carlo in May -- it gave us time to go back and really work hard on the ‘98. We had sort of gotten behind on it.

"They’ve gotten fired up during the last couple of races and now we’re running better. I think we had a better car at Charlotte than what we finished. We finished sixth, which is great from what we been running."

Hamlin has now had a year to work with Earnhardt since replacing Larry McReynolds as crew chief after Dover last season. Despite the somewhat tumultuous relationship that existed on the team before his arrival, Hamlin said that he and Earnhardt have found a happy medium.

"A seven-time champion doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to drive," Hamlin said. "I find it’s best to find what makes him comfortable and proceed from there. I think we’re making improvements in our cars -- chassis-wise and body-wise. This spoiler and valence rule, we’re finally getting handle on that and producing the numbers we used to. We’ve figured out spring and shock combinations that make our races more successful."

Although it’s been said that the Kannapolis, N.C., native hedges about his age, the 48-year-old veteran says he isn’t bothered by comments regarding his age.

"People are going to get older and young guys are going to come in and race and get more competitive," Earnhardt said with a yawn. "Things have changed. It’s not going to stay the same. You’re not going to be the same Dale Earnhardt you were in the years when you were winning championships. But the competition level has changed in Winston Cup too.

"It’s bottomed out from 15 cars to 25 to 30 cars and you got to be right on and keep the team in tact to be competitive. If you’re not, you’re not going to be a guy to be reckoned with every weekend and that’s the point we’re trying to make."

Not only is Childress pleased with progress, he’s in the process of extending Earnhardt’s contract for an additional three years, eclipsing the current agreement which expires next season.

"Right now we're very positive about staying together for three more years," said Childress. "We're going to win some races.We've been changing our people around a lot, crew chiefs and others, and I think you'll see a different focused Dale Earnhardt the rest of this season. He wants to win. We just had two or three accidents earlier this year.

"The last two years Dale drove hurt. But I think now he's the healthiest right now he's been since '96. The guy has absolutely no fear. Look at how he ran Daytona. Look at the moves he made in the Daytona 500. Look at how he ran Talladega. We've been competitive. We could have won at Phoenix if the race had been started back. We were as strong as anyone."

Earnhardt agrees with Childress’ sentiments.

"If we’re going to run for points we need to run in the top-five every week," Earnhardt said. "Consistency. Finishing races is important, but racing is more important. I’m talking about racing in the top five, the top 10 and then having a car that can win at the end of the day. That’s what we’re striving for, making us a contender in every race."