March 17, 2001
Earnhardt's Memory Throughout Darlington
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt won more at Talladega and traded more sheet metal at Bristol.
Ah, but Darlington, that's where The Intimidator really loved to go racin'.
He probably had as much affection for NASCAR's oldest superspeedway as any driver to compete there.
"He truly loved racing here,'' Darlington president Jim Hunter said.
Earnhardt showed his fondness for the historic country track all the time. He often left his busy schedule to promote its races and would wear the large straw hats with the Darlington logo at events nationwide.
"That was the sort of relationship we had with him,'' Hunter said. "That just came because of how he felt about this place.''
Earnhardt, killed in a wreck at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, got nine of his 76 Winston Cup victories at Darlington. David Pearson, with 10, was the only driver to collect more Darlington trophies.
Hunter said Earnhardt would have been ready to try to catch Pearson when the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 is run Sunday.
Earnhardt hadn't won here since the TranSouth 400 in 1994. But Rusty Wallace said his good friend always came in as a favorite.
"He knew how to get around this place as good as anyone,'' said Wallace, who is 0-for-Darlington in 22 NASCAR seasons.
Hunter remembers when a young Earnhardt drove at Darlington before The Intimidator days. For about 30 to 40 laps, Earnhardt
"was dirt-tracking the raceway,'' Hunter said of sliding the car somewhat sideways.
"I thought there was no way he was going to keep the car out of the wall. But he did.''
The relationship between NASCAR's hardest charger and its trickiest track began for good in 1982, when Earnhardt won the Rebel 500. He won six of the 10 events here between 1986 and 1990, building a reputation for humbling
"The Track Too Tough To Tame,'' like few before or since.
Earnhardt said last September he would go to the drivers' meetings before Darlington races and hear competitors talk about the tire-chewing surface or the hot, sticky weather.
"I know I got those guys beat already,'' Earnhardt said. "I love this old place.''
Earnhardt's style also helped sell Darlington tickets - something Ol' Ironhead never let Hunter forget. When Earnhardt spun out Terry Labonte on the final lap to win at Bristol Motor Speedway in August 1999, Darlington sold about 6,000 additional tickets for the Southern 500 a week later. The same thing happened a year ago, Hunter said, when Earnhardt won at Atlanta Motor Speedway the week before Darlington's Mall.com 400.
"I'm doing my part,'' Earnhardt said to Hunter, "Y'all ain't doing nothing.''
Darlington also was the site of some of Earnhardt's most inglorious moments.
NASCAR talked to Earnhardt and Labonte about possible retribution following the Bristol crash. As reporters swarmed Earnhardt for a comment, Wallace stood atop an adjacent trailer chanting in a high-pitched voice,
"Dirty driver, dirty driver, dirty driver.''
Two years earlier, in the 1997 Southern 500, Earnhardt shockingly hit the inside wall several times like he was asleep at the wheel. Turned out he was. Car owner Richard Childress screamed at Earnhardt to bring in the car and the driver said,
"I'm sorry, I saw two racetracks.''
Earnhardt spent the night in the hospital, and days of tests revealed nothing to keep him from driving. But Earnhardt had a theory about that, Hunter said.
"He was convinced in his own mind it was that tomato,'' Hunter said.
Earnhardt, a North Carolina country boy, ate a tomato right before entering his car.
"He said that tomato had some acid in it that affected him,'' Hunter said.
No doctor ever proved him wrong.
Wallace remembers following Earnhardt's lead through many of their Darlington races. He also recalls a time Earnhardt made himself felt at Darlington before things began.
Wallace said at one Southern 500, "It was 105 degrees and those black bugs were everywhere.''
When Wallace stuck his head in his car before the start, he said. "It stunk way bad.'' Lifting up the seat cushion, he discovered,
"Earnhardt had put a whole can of sardines in there. That damn car stunk all damn day.''
Earnhardt told Wallace he wanted Rusty to think of him throughout the race.
Thoughts of Earnhardt are everywhere at Darlington this weekend. One day, Hunter said he expects Earnhardt's name to adorn Darlington for all time, like the recently constructed
"We had a special relationship with a special guy,'' Hunter said.
By PETE IACOBELLI, AP Sports Writer