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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Feb. 12, 1999
Dale Earnhardt hoping to duplicate John Elway
By JOHN MULLIN - Chicago Tribune

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He had become a John Elway of his sport, one of the greatest ever, a winner of nearly all, all but one, a champion without the championship. The Super Bowl of his sport.

Dale Earnhardt had won the overall NASCAR Winston Cup series championship seven times but never the capstone, the Daytona 500. He had run in the event 19 times and in it his nickname, ``The Intimidator,'' rang just a little hollow even though he had finished in the top 10 14 times.

Elway was on three losing Super Bowl teams in one four-year period with the Denver Broncos. In one stretch, Earnhardt lost three Daytona 500s in four years by a total of .89 of a second: in 1993 to Dale Jarrett by .16, in 1995 to Sterling Martin by .61 and to Jarrett again by .12 in 1996. Members of his team admit now that, while once they all felt the lack of a Daytona victory was not a smudge on Earnhardt's legendary career, it really was.

Fittingly, Earnhardt and Elway wiped away their disappointments within three weeks of each other last year. Earnhardt was watching again this year with particular interest as Elway won again.

``I was glad to see (Elway) win the Super Bowl for that reason alone,'' Earnhardt said of Elway's repeat. ``To do that would be great.''

Earnhardt had won 31 other races at Daytona International Speedway, more in fact than any other driver. But fate was as unkind as any driver to ``Big Dale.'' In 1990 he had dominated the first 499 of the 500's 500 miles, then ran over some debris and cut a tire in turn three in the final seconds.

Ironically, the Daytona 500, the first NASCAR race of the year, was Earnhardt's last victory of the season, but still one more than he had in 1997, the first time since 1982 he had gone winless. He finished eighth in the Winston Cup standings, but with the Daytona prize money of more than $1 million, totaled $2,990,479, fourth-best on the circuit.

Earnhardt posted a speed of 193.865 in his qualifying lap Sunday, 10th-best on a list topped by pole-sitter Jeff Gordon (195.067) and rookie Tony Stewart (194.599).

Earnhardt's victory last year sparked an emotional outpouring up and down pit road and throughout racing. His average speed of 172.712 was the third-fastest ever for the 500. For Earnhardt, it brought a sense of completion to a career that ranks him among the legends of the sport.

``(Winning the Daytona 500) did make my life a lot happier,'' Earnhardt said. ``It was an exciting memory all year long but it doesn't help you win it again this year. It's as hard to work back to the top as it was to win it last year.

``But it was a tremendous win for us. It was a lot to think about.''

Some of the thinking had to do with his future. Earnhardt is nearing the end of his contract with owner Richard Childress. But Earnhardt says he won't be an owner-driver and Childress doesn't see an end for Earnhardt.

``I know Dale Earnhardt probably as well as anybody,'' Childress said. ``We talked at the end of the year. I see that desire when I'm talking to him. He still has the desire to win.''

Earnhardt, 48 in April, confirmed he isn't ready to quit. But he vows he won't be a hanger-on.

``I'm not ready to sit there and run in the top 20 or somewhere in the field,'' Earnhardt said. ``I want to go out and win and that will keep me going longer. There will be a time I'll make the decision to retire and do whatever I'm going to do. I won't drive for myself.''

Part of the fun now comes from watching Dale Jr. emerge as a racer in his own right. Both will be in the field of 12 for Friday's IROC (International Race of Champions) event, and Dale Jr., the reigning NASCAR Busch Grand National Series champion, drew a slightly better starting position (4) than his father (6).

Blood is not thicker than oil sometimes. During an exhibition race in Japan last November, the two bumped with purpose.

``He put the fender to me,'' Earnhardt Sr. growled, ``so we were racing.''

``It was kind of by mutual agreement,'' Earnhardt Jr. deadpanned.

``I don't know if (his son racing) makes me feel older,'' said Earnhardt. ``I'm excited about him being in IROC with me and racing against me at Charlotte.''

Earnhardt Sr. achieved a personal milestone with his victory last year. Now the goal is to make racing history with an eighth series championship while at the same time breaking the slump in which the Daytona 500 triumph was his only title of the past two seasons.

In his way is Gordon, trying to win his fourth Winston Cup championship in five years and record third in a row. But Earnhardt's main mission is to restore a sense of winning to his team.

That begins Thursday with the two 125-mile qualifying races that will set most of Sunday's starting positions in the 500.

``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 all I want to do,'' Earnhardt said. ``Over the years I've raced with Richard (Childress), we've raced for the championship a lot of years. There weren't many years we were out of the running for it. We have to get this turned around and get back in the running for it.

``Winning this race would be great. And 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.''

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Daytona 500
Feb. 14, 1999

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