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
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
``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
Earnhardt, 48 in April, confirmed he isn't ready to quit. But he vows he won't be a
``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
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
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.''
NASCAR Winston Cup Series
Feb. 14, 1999