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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Feb. 12, 1999
New questions dog Dale Earnhardt
By STEVE CROWE - Detroit Free Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the first time since it became an issue more than a decade ago, Dale Earnhardt hasn't come back to the beach and faced the same question: ``What's it feel like not to win the Daytona 500?''
Instead, this year's novel question has been: ``What's it feel like not to be asked about not winning the Daytona 500?''

Well, Earnhardt assures: ``It feels great to come down and not be asked if you think you can win it this year, and talk about all the things that have gone wrong the last several years.

``All that's behind us. But now they want to know how it feels not to have that question asked. You can go along and bug Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace and some of these other guys now.''

Indeed, some other NASCAR stars haven't won the Daytona 500. Ricky Rudd hasn't won in 21 tries; Labonte is 0-for-20. Kyle Petty has come 17 times without winning at Daytona in February, one more than Wallace.

But Earnhardt, 47, remains special among NASCAR stars. His wildly popular victory, after so many Daytona disappointments and near-misses, came in his 20th attempt.

``We felt good all year long about winning it last year,'' Earnhardt said. ``It was an exciting memory all year long, but it doesn't help you win it again this year. You've just got to go out and work hard and get ready and do it again this year.

``It's as hard to work back to the top as it was to win it last year.''

In fact, the Daytona victory was the only one last year for Earnhardt. In his final 32 starts, his Chevrolet Monte Carlo managed just four more top-five finishes -- just one of third or better.

Earnhardt, a seven-time series champion, was eighth in points, his worst season since he finished 12th in 1992. Before winning Daytona last February, Earnhardt's most recent victory had been Atlanta in March 1996 -- a 59-race winless stretch.

Last June, team owner Richard Childress did a crew-chief switch: Larry McReynolds, teamed with Earnhardt since the start of 1997, moving to the Monte Carlo driven by Mike Skinner, with Kevin Hamlin joining Earnhardt.

``I try to be comfortable with anybody I work with,'' Earnhardt said. ``Larry and I and the team just didn't seem to really pull together close. We all were working our heads. When they made the change, it made everybody step back and take a look and see what was going on.

``Kevin and I just sort of had a better relationship. We ended up talking about the same things. We're comfortable with each other, and it just seems to work better. I think as much of Larry as I always have.''

Earnhardt also thinks of winning the Daytona 500 again -- Sunday. He could join three others as consecutive winners of stock-car racing's Super Bowl: Sterling Marlin (1994-95), Cale Yarborough ('83-84) and Richard Petty ('73-74).

Given the difficulty of doing that double, Earnhardt has looked to two-time Super Bowl winner John Elway of the Denver Broncos.

``I was glad to see him win the Super Bowl for that reason alone,'' Earnhardt said. ``To be able to do that would be great. To start the season off on a winning note and get this team back into the feel of racing in the top five and racing for the championship is what I want to do. . . . There weren't many years we were out of the running for it.

``We've got to get this turned around and get back in the running for it.''

But time cruises on, and Earnhardt seems fairly aware of his mortality in terms of racing greatness. His remaining chances to break the seven-title tie with Petty are limited.

Inescapable evidence is that his son, reigning NASCAR Grand National champ Dale Jr., 24, will be racing in the same Winston Cup series about five times this year.

``I don't know if it makes me feel older,'' Earnhardt said. ``I'm excited about what Dale Jr. is doing and Kerry.''

Kerry Earnhardt, 29, is entering his first full NASCAR Grand National season after three starts last year.

``I think somewhere in the back of my mind it makes me think I'm getting older and things are changing,'' said Earnhardt, owner of a team fielding a Winston Cup car for Steve Park. ``Qualifying has been my weak side, and we've worked hard to come back and be better qualifiers this year.

``That's something we've got to work harder on.''

For starts, Earnhardt was 10th in Saturday's Daytona 500 pole qualifying (193.865).

Some are convinced that Earnhardt's best days are behind him. Others assume his problems last year were mostly mechanical, and take heart in finishes of 10th, third, ninth and 13th.

``I know Dale Earnhardt probably as good as anybody,'' Childress said. ``Those last four races, I watched a lot of the little things. I was as impressed as if we'd won.

``He's still got the desire to win. Neither one of us are happy running like we are. I feel like maybe we let him down a little bit with the crew chief thing, and you can't control people. I think now we've got some good people.

``We're trying to put our program back where he can do his job. He'll get it done.''

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