Still durable, Earnhardt gears up for 600th consecutive career Winston Cup start Sunday at
August 11, 1999 - By Mike Mulhern
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Dale Earnhardt is well on down the comeback trail and feeling quite
good about his lot in life. He's facing his 600th consecutive career start on the Winston
Cup tour here this weekend, and he's still looking ahead optimistically to an eighth
NASCAR title before retiring to the top of the truck to watch Dale Jr. play the game.
Earnhardt hasn't missed a race since September 1979, his rookie season, when he missed
four weekends after a nasty crash at Long Pond, Pa. Only Terry Labonte has a longer string
of unbroken starts, now at 622.
''And that rascal hasn't been hurt like I have, though he's driven hurt several times,''
Earnhardt said with a laugh. ''I was just a little too hurt after Pocono in '79.
''Having 600 starts means you've been around a while. To see 600 starts is pretty
monumental. But I don't feel any older.'' Earnhardt and Labonte have both driven in 627
tour races during their careers. On the list of NASCAR's ironmen, Richard Petty is the
He hit number 600 in 1973, though not all 600 were consecutive. His longest stretch of
consecutive tour starts was 513, But over his career he logged an incredible 1,177 starts.
WARHORSE DAVE Marcis, with 858, is second in career starts, although he has missed several
during a career that began in 1968.
Darrell Waltrip is marching toward 800. He has made 771 starts, and if he makes it
uninterrupted through 2000, his final season, he'll wind up with at least 819. But his
longest run of consecutive starts, 431, ended with a hard crash at Daytona in 1990.
Bobby Allison hit No. 600 in 1984, again not consecutively. He was at his peak when his
career ended suddenly at Pocono Raceway four years later after 717 starts. His longest
stretch of consecutive starts was 374. Buddy Baker logged 698 career starts, and the late
J.D. McDuffie, who died here in a backstretch crash, posted 653.
The next active driver to hit 600 in a row should be Ricky Rudd, who has made 560 straight
since 1981. Rudd has made 647 starts since he joined the tour in 1975.
Bill Elliott has run in 577 races and can hit 600 late next season.
Longevity is not necessarily related to victories: Jeff Gordon has driven in only 209
races, but he has already won 46.
Retirement isn't in his plans any time soon, Earnhardt says. In fact, he's ready to sign a
new contract with car owner Richard Childress. Earnhardt ran as high as fifth Saturday in
the Brickyard 400 before finishing 10th, 16 seconds behind Dale Jarrett.
But Jarrett has such a large lead in the standings, 274 points over Mark Martin, 598 over
Earnhardt, that Earnhardt and Childress will have to try again next season for that
elusive eighth title.
Gordon won last year's championship by 364 points, but coming out of Indianapolis last
season Gordon led by only 72 over Martin.
''One day you're on the top of the world, and then you have a bad day or a bad streak and
they're all wanting to retire you,'' Earnhardt said. ''But we still feel we can win races
and win championships, and Richard and I are working on a new contract for three years
''We're got a nine-race string of top 10s, and we feel good about what we're doing, feel
good about our chances to win races. We're looking to turn the corner and put another
championship in the book before we quit.''
Earnhardt's touch at Daytona and Talladega is legendary. He missed winning the Daytona 500
in February by just a hair, then he won at Talladega. But elsewhere, he has struggled.
''Yeah, people may say 'Aw, he's good at the speedways, but he may not be as good at the
road courses or Richmond or wherever,' '' Earnhardt said. ''Well, we'll prove them wrong.
It's just circumstances so far, and it just hasn't happened lately as consistently as it
should, as it used to.
''We've been working on a big part of it with aerodynamics over the year, and the balance.
It's not something you just go out and change. It's something I feel in the car, something
the chassis and I feel in the car. And when we hit that mark it will show up, like it did
at Charlotte. And from there on we've qualified strong, well, decent.
''But when I say turn the corner, really turning the corner, I mean it's when you can win
a race every couple of weeks, and you're a contender to win every week. That's where we
were before and that's where we've got to get back to.''
ONE OF EARHARDT'S finest moments came here three years ago, just a few days after a
terrible crash at Talladega. Never really known as a great road racer, Earnhardt not only
won the pole that afternoon but also set a track record that still stands.
''It was a pretty tough day,'' Earnhardt said. ''But the mental state of having to race
hurt was helped by the fact the car qualified on the pole, so that pumped me up. On the
race day it was really a matter of overcoming the pain, and late in the race the pain was
pretty strong, and I was a little duller than I was at the first of the race, and that's
why we ended up sixth instead of fourth or a little better.''
Playing hurt is a fact of life for stock-car racers, no matter how badly banged up they
may be. Witness Martin.
''You do those things to keep up your end of the bargain with the team,'' Earnhardt said.
''I may have slowed my healing process somewhat, but looking back I'd do it again. We all
play hurt. Mark Martin is playing with a bum knee and all.
''We've had problems during our career and just have to keep going on, whether it's an
ill-handling car or a bruised-up body.''
THE FAVORITE FOR this weekend's Frontier at the Glen is Gordon, who has won four straight
road races. Martin has won more races here than any other driver, and he's probably the
one to give Gordon his toughest challenge. Watkins Glen isn't one of Jarrett's best
tracks. But a new concrete and asphalt surface may prove to be a great equalizer,
''I may get in trouble for this if I say the wrong thing,'' Earnhardt said. ''They paved
the race track, which was a great deal. Then they messed up and put down a sealer, so the
asphalt didn't cure, and the track tore up when the Busch cars raced.
''To try to fix it they put down concrete, but only in some places. That just made it more
hazardous. Mike Skinner bent up two race cars testing up there. Didn't tear 'em totally,
but bent 'em up.
''There will be a lot more torn up in practice and racing this time. I think you'll be
racing the track as much as racing anybody else. It will be a tougher race than usual,
trying to figure out how to race through those adverse conditions.''
EARNHARDT HAS MORE on his mind this season than just his own career. Dale Jr. is having a
rough season on the Busch tour, and he's also facing the prospect of four more Winston Cup
races this season, including next week's race at Michigan, before tackling the full
Winston Cup tour next year.
''His Busch racing has been a little haphazard lately,'' Earnhardt said. ''He's torn up a
few cars. But I think he's on track. He's eager to get into it.
''They're in Michigan testing and had a pretty good day. They're on track. We're building
the new building, should be finished by October, and the team will be moving in shortly
after. The team has a lot going on, a lot of preparation, because we want to be as
prepared as we can be for the Winston Cup races he has left this year.'' And how about
Earnhardt himself. Is he still up for this?
''It's tougher to win now in Winston Cup racing than it's ever been. We were on top for so
long, but then got sidetracked by some things,'' Earnhardt said.
''And it's taken us some time to get back on the game.
''You can't put your finger on just why you go out and race and don't win. I got in the
IROC car and won three out of four races this year. Just had a terrible day in that IROC
car at Indy.
''But how do you judge whether it's the driver or the car or the crew chief or the engine
guy or components in between?
''There are guys out there who, if they got in the right car with the right people, could
win. It's beyond me, for example, why Michael Waltrip hasn't won by now.''
''He's got a good race car this year, the team is jelling, and Michael is a talented
''Look at the marks: Rusty Wallace is not winning as regularly as he used to. I'm not
winning as regularly as I used to,'' Earnhardt said.
''But Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, these guys all of a sudden are on their
game. Why? Because everything is working for them.
''And I think Richard Childress and our team are getting closer back to that mark. We're
in the top 10 and competitive, and if we can just get a little more competitive, I think
we can even be better.''
"One day you're on top of the world and the next day you're not winning and
somebody's retiring you," he said. "But there's not been any talk of retirement
here. Richard and Goodwrench and I are working out the details now in our
agreement for three years after the year 2000. We still feel like we can win
championships and win races. I'm sure people want to retire you if they see you have a bad
day or a bad streak, but we've been running pretty good. We feel good about what we're
doing and trying to turn the corner and getting another championship."
For now, Earnhardt is concentrating solely on remaining in
the top-10 in 1999. He currently stands seventh in the championship standings, and
continues to become more and more competitive as he and crew chief Kevin Hamlin learn each
other's tendencies. He's finished in the top-10 13 times this season, including six of the
past seven races.
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