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Earnhardt adjusts well to 'shift of power'
'99 News
By Godwin Kelly

Daytona Beach, Fla. (Dec. 6, 1999)
It's hard to believe that Dale Earnhardt's last NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship came five years ago.

Since winning his record-tying seventh title in 1994, the 48-year-old driver has seen three other drivers sit at the head table during the NASCAR Winston Cup Awards Banquet.

Most thought Earnhardt had a deed to that piece of property at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan in the first half of this decade. From 1990 to '94, Earnhardt took his position at the champion's table an incredible four times.

The late Alan Kulwicki won the lucrative title in 1992 in a strange season that went to the last lap of competition. In 1993 it was business as usual with Earnhardt holding the cup aloft in New York.

Everybody figured in '94 it would only take a year or two for "ol' Ironhead" to become NASCAR's first eight-time champion, breaking the tie with legend Richard Petty.

But Earnhardt ran into a roadblock he never expected with the emergence of Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports.

There was no slow shift in the balance power. In 1995 it was more like a bloodless coup as Gordon raced to seven victories and eight Bud Poles, taking car owner Rick Hendrick to his first championship.

Gordon is talented but he had several aces up his sleeve including crew chief Ray Evernham, who had nearly unlimited resources to work with at Hendrick. It was Evernham who developed NASCAR's new technology, and new ways of doing things.

With Evernham's new scheme working, Earnhardt's team, Richard Childress Racing, found itself a step behind in racing technology, partly because of the instability of the crew chief position.

In 1996 Earnhardt lost the services of crew chief Andy Petree to Leo Jackson, who promised Petree an equity stake in his team. Petree bought the team the following season and now owns two NASCAR Winston Cup Series operations, for drivers Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace.

Meanwhile, the crew chief position at RCR was unstable. Earnhardt and Childress thought they found the cure when they hired Larry McReynolds from Robert Yates Racing following the 1996 season. But this projected "Super Team" never reached its lofty potential as Earnhardt went winless during the 1997 season, one of the toughest in his long career.

The problem year included some sort of rogue seizure at the start of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway that put Earnhardt in the hospital for a battery of tests. All came back negative.

All those troubles were wiped clean the following season when Earnhardt scored the one victory that had eluded him for 20 years -- the Daytona 500. That triumph put the brakes on a dreadful, 59-race losing streak for the proud champion.

Still, it wasn't enough to keep Earnhardt and McReynolds together. McReynolds complained Earnhardt wasn't involved with the team enough. They split 13 races into the season, with McReynolds going over to crew chief for Mike Skinner, Childress' other driver.

Earnhardt got Kevin Hamlin in exchange for McReynolds and the two men quickly jelled.

The end result was Earnhardt making a stunning comeback during the 1999 season. He came within a whisker of defending his Daytona 500 title -- which ironically was the only race he had won since the beginning of the 1996 season; swept both races at Talladega; won a TKO over Terry Labonte at Bristol, Tenn.; and captured his third True Value IROC championship after winning the first three rounds.

"We've showed big improvements throughout the season winning three races and finishing seventh in the points," said Earnhardt. "With 20 top-10 finishes, I feel we're on the right path. If we turn those into top-5s, we'll have a good shot at the 2000 championship."

And for Earnhardt, that's what it's all about.

Godwin Kelly is the motorsports editor for the Daytona Beach News-Journal