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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Feb. 12, 1999
Dale Earnhardt returns for another shot at glory
By JULIET MACUR - The Orlando Sentinel

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For several days during the off-season, Dale Earnhardt wasn't worried about winning races or his eighth NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Instead, he was hanging out on his 72-foot yacht off the coast of south Florida, considering life as a retired NASCAR Winston Cup driver.

``It wouldn't be too bad to live like that forever. I'd just wake up with no plans at all,'' said Earnhardt, as he turned to his boat captain, Terry Jones.

``Hey, Terry, what do you want to do? Go fishing? `I don't know, what do you want to do?' Then maybe we would wait a while, and it would be time to go to sleep. Then it would start all over again the next morning.''

Before any of that happens, though, Earnhardt has a few things to take care of. Not only does he want to win an eighth championship, to top the record he now holds with Richard Petty, Earnhardt wants to win another Daytona 500. He just doesn't want it to take as long as it took him to win his first one.

After 19 years of close calls and near wins, Earnhardt finally won NASCAR's biggest race last year, making it to Victory Lane for the Daytona 500 to end his frustrations. Now he is thinking about a repeat. It gives him hope that John Elway led the Denver Broncos to their second consecutive Super Bowl win this year. Now, Earnhardt, 47 and nearing the end of his career, hopes to do the same thing.

``I was glad to see him win the Super Bowl for that reason alone. To be able to do that would be great,'' said Earnhardt, who will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 on Thursday in one of two 125-mile qualifying races. ``Now that the black cloud isn't over my head anymore like it was last year.

``It's definitely special to win the Daytona 500. Now when Darrell (Waltrip) and me are sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch when we're both about 70, he can't say, `I won it and you didn't.' ''

Even though Earnhardt has only one Daytona 500 victory among his 71 NASCAR Winston Cup wins, that doesn't mean he doesn't know how to win at Daytona. He is the track's winningest driver, with 31 wins on the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway. And his specialty race is the Daytona 500's 125-mile qualifying race, of which he has won a record nine in a row.

On Thursday, he will try to make it an even 10 when he starts fifth in one of the qualifying races. Starting positions 3 through 30 for the Daytona 500 are determined by the finishing order of the two qualifying races. The other spots are allocated by qualifying speed and provisional entries.

Defending Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon won the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500 during Saturday's qualifying, while rookie Tony Stewart is on the outside pole. They are each on the pole for one of today's races, as the only two drivers with guaranteed starting spots for the sold-out 500-mile race that kicks off the Winston Cup season. Everyone else still has to earn their spots.

``If Tony wants to learn something about racing at superspeedways, Earnhardt will definitely teach him. When I was a rookie he taught me pretty good,'' Gordon said. ``He taught me that when he gets on your bumper, you shouldn't think twice about getting out of the way.''

While Earnhardt has been famously crafty about getting to the front in superspeedway races, he wasn't too crafty about winning many races last year. He won the Daytona 500 to break his 59-race winless streak then didn't win another race for the rest of the season.

But his car owner Richard Childress said there was a good reason for that. Earnhardt got into several accidents at the beginning of the season, leaving him with cracked ribs, a cracked sternum and other injuries that hampered him for the rest of the season.

``I was concerned having him out there because I knew he was driving hurt. He was all used up. His body just can't handle that much anymore,'' Childress said. ``The biggest mistake we had was bringing him back too soon. It ruined the whole year for us.

``This year is going to be different. We're ready for it and we're ready to show that last year wasn't a fluke. Dale Earnhardt deserved to win the Daytona 500 and he deserves to win it back to back.''

Earnhardt's No. 3 team revamped itself over the season, adding an aggressive aerodynamic program and also a workout regimen for Earnhardt and the team. They are trying to make the improvements they need to contend for another championship --which Earnhardt thinks possible, even though he finished eighth in points and had only five top 5 finishes last year.

There is a sense of urgency for Earnhardt to win another championship, though. Even though he has two years left in his contract with Childress, he does realize he can't drive forever. He knows he has to win -- and now.

So, everybody on Earnhardt's team is gearing up for their best season yet, where they hope one of NASCAR's greatest drivers will re-energize his career.

``We want to win a few races and be a contender for the Winston Cup championship. I don't want us to be out there running 15th or 20th every race,'' Childress said. ``That's not the way I want to see Dale Earnhardt retire.''

But Earnhardt knows the way he wants to retire. He wants at least a couple of wins. He wants another championship. And he wants to retire in peace, knowing he exited the sport with style.

``When I retire, I'm going to sit on my boat and do nothing all day,'' Earnhardt said. ``Hey Terry, can you see it now?''

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