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Seeking a sweet repeat
Earnhardt won his first Daytona 500 in '98, and he wants to make
sure it won't be his last

Staff Writer, That's Racing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It took Dale Earnhardt 20 years to find Victory Lane at the Daytona 500.
And now that he's added that accomplishment to his already impressive resume, Earnhardt is creating another hurdle.

``We want to repeat. Let's win this thing again,'' Earnhardt said Tuesday at Daytona International Speedway, where he and 28 other Chevrolet and Pontiac drivers opened a two-day General Motors manufacturer's testing session.

``It was a lot of years trying to win and then to finally win it, it was a tremendous time for us last year,'' he added. ``It's like the first race you ever won, you want to win another one. It's always good to win.''

Earnhardt's Daytona 500 frustration has been marked by four second-place finishes, including two straight (1995-96). He has finished in the top five 10 times, one behind leader Richard Petty.

Though Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, struggled much of the season after his win at Daytona, he did finish the season eighth in the points race. He had five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes.

But with the 1998 season behind him, Earnhardt, 47, said he's ready to begin the new year, which will be filled with several new challenges. The season features the expected debut of the 1999 Monte Carlo in May and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s debut in the Winston Cup series.

Earnhardt Jr., the 1998 NASCAR Grand National series champion, will run five races in 1999, starting with the Coca-Cola 600 in May and move full-time to the Winston Cup series in 2000.

``It feels good coming back to Daytona and getting ready for a new year,'' the elder Earnhardt said. ``It's always exciting getting started here in anticipation of what the year is going to be like. We feel good about our preparation over the winter, and we feel like we have a good race car to run here in Daytona. It's all coming together very well so far.

``We've been working on the aerodynamics package and the balance package, plus we're working on the 1999 Monte Carlo. There are a lot of things going on that we are trying to prepare for right now. We're running smooth and working well as a team.''

Earnhardt's team's work appears to have paid off so far. Earnhardt tested two cars Tuesday and posted the fifth fastest speed with a lap of 190.130 mph. Jeff Gordon, the 1998 Winston Cup champion, was fastest at 191.832 mph.

``Basically, we're just going through some things with me and the way the car drives and sort of tuning that. It's all for a two-lap qualifying deal and then we'll get ready to race,'' Earnhardt said.

``It's a fairly comfortable ride, but when you get down to the qualifying deal and you talk about going for it, it's a pretty hairy ride for a lap or two.

``We spend all this time down here just trying to go fast for two laps.''

Though he's tasted victory just once in the Daytona 500 in his nearly 25-year Winston Cup career, Earnhardt has been close enough to understand what it's like as the season's biggest race draws to its conclusion.

``If you're leading at the white flag (the signal for one lap remaining), you're just trying to keep them behind you for that last lap,'' Earnhardt said. ``It's a chess game to get there, be there and stay there for the last 10 laps.

``There's a lot of people behind you who have worked hard at trying to gain on you and shoot at you. It's just got to work out for you in the right way.''

And Earnhardt can say it did, at least once.

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