showing he still has it
By Bill Weber, Special to ESPN.com
(July 22, 1999)
Dale Earnhardt can sum up the 1999 Winston Cup
season in three simple sentences:
"Well, the Daytona 500 was great."
"Then we crashed at Rockingham and crashed at Atlanta."
"It's been interesting from then on just being competitive."
Of course, that doesn't touch on the win at Talladega, or the
second-place finish in the Pepsi 400 on the Fourth of July weekend. He also doesn't
mention he has four straight top-10 finishes, or the fact he's currently seventh in the
point standings -- just 126 out of fifth.
The second-place finish in the Daytona 500 was a great way to
start the season, but since then Earnhardt's lack of consistency has bothered the
seven-time Winston Cup champion.
|His battle with Jeff
Gordon in the Daytona 500 gave Dale Earnhardt reason to be optimistic about the 1999
Earnhardt was 42st at "The Rock" and 40th in
Atlanta. Those two forgettable races were sandwiched around a seventh-place run at Las
Vegas. So, in the first four races of '99, Earnhardt had two top 10s and two finishes of
40th or worse.
That's consistently inconsistent.
But Earnhardt arrives at Pocono Raceway -- where he's only
won twice in his career -- for this week's Pennsylvania 500 with the knowledge that he
finished seventh at Pocono just five weeks ago. He believes he can win Sunday. And
believing is a big part of Earnhardt's approach to success on the race track.
Earnhardt believes it. The numbers show it. And while all
three of his top-five finishes have come on restrictor-plate tracks where Earnhardt always
excels, he takes the same attitude to every track, every week.
"You win. (Or) you run second every race, that's the
goal," Earnhardt said. "I've got to win every race. I've got to. I've got to go
to every race and be a contender to win -- and win -- to win that championship, or to move
up in those points."
Beginning with his win at Talladega, Earnhardt has seven
top-ten finishes in ten races. Only once has he finished outside of the top-12, and his
worst finish in the ten races was 16th at Michigan. He has climbed from 20th in the points
after Darlington, to seventh heading back to Pocono.
How has he done it?
"It's a never ending battle of making your cars better
and also trying to be better yourself," Earnhardt said. "It's just really hard
to work and get better, building and planning for the future with the new Monte Carlo and
keeping the race team intact and keeping them healthy.
"We sort of left ourselves open for a big let down with
that Monte Carlo situation, hoping to have a brand new Monte Carlo in Charlotte. Then
NASCAR and Chevrolet couldn't get together. We didn't really focus on our '98 cars and we
started out the season with some lesser equipment than what we should've had.
||Here is a look at Dale
Earnhardt's performances since winning the Diehard 500 at Talladega on April 25:
||Jiffy Lube 300
||MBNA Platinum 400
||Coca Cola 600
||Pontiac Excitement 400
"After the NASCAR wind tunnel test following the Atlanta
race, we realized from the numbers how much we were behind. So, we started working from
there, and by Charlotte we had some good race cars. It showed in qualifying. We raced
pretty good in California before that, so we started tuning on things and we've seen
progress since then."
Still, some critics have questioned Earnhardt's direction in
recent years; starting his own team, expanding, hiring his son to run the Winston Cup
series with a huge sponsorship package from Budweiser.
Question it all you want, because Earnhardt has the answers.
"If I can win races and win championships, I feel like
my future is going to be OK," Earnhardt said. "I've got to prove myself as a car
owner with the (No. 1) car for Steve Park and the (No. 8) car for Dale, Jr. We've not
proven ourselves, yet. We're working on that, though. But, that '3' car is my focus."
Earnhardt still talks about winning a record eighth
championship. That is mathematically possible in 1999, but not too realistic. Still, the
goal, and the belief remain the same. Win more races.
"I better win more races. I've got to," Earnhardt
said. "To win more championships and stay alive in this sport, it's very, very, hard
and it's hard to understand how it works.
"I'm winning races, I'm competitive. I'm seventh in
points, and they talk about (me) being over-the-hill. And I'm looking around saying, 'What
about Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte and all these guys that are behind me? Are they not
over-the-hill? If I'm over-the-hill, they're over-the-hill.'
"I'm racing for the wins and racing up front and
finishing in the top 10. It's puzzling to me how you can judge a driver on that."
So Earnhardt walks into the garage each Friday with the sole
purpose of winning. His attitude rubs off on his crew and the goal becomes a common one
among the whole team.
The Goodwrench team has seen the progress, and so has its
driver. "I see it on pit road when we make better pit stops and that comes from
harder work back at the shop, practicing, testing, trying to get better.
"I think the team is spreading (confidence) through
itself. I saw that team get turned around and get fired-up toward Charlotte (in May). And
once they put that car together, (one) that would do the job, and they saw the car do the
job, race good and qualify good -- then they got more fired up."
Earnhardt knows the clock is ticking, a lot of laps have gone
by. But he believes there are some good laps, good races and good wins still ahead.
"If I was 30th in points and not making races and not
being competitive in races, I could understand them saying I'm over-the-hill or I'm ready
to quit or whatever," Earnhardt said. "But to win races and to race up front and
to still want to do it like I do ... I think their scorecards are wrong."
What will the scorecard say at the end of this season? Can
Earnhardt claw his way closer to the top?
"You want to be in the top-five, racing for the lead. I
still believe we can get there," Earnhardt said. "I got to where I'm at in the
first half, so there's no reason why we couldn't turn it around and get to where the other
guys are in the second half. We can definitely improve. That's what we want to do, try to
improve on our position in the points."
You've got to believe he will. Earnhardt certainly does.