DARLINGTON, S.C. - Dale Earnhardt is back. If last Saturday's win at Bristol Motor Speedway didn't offer conclusive proof, then his wins in three of the four IROC races this year should suffice, as well as a newfound streak of competitive consistency.
Or maybe the proof is in his win earlier this year at Talladega Superspeedway. He's won on a big track. He's won on a small track. He's won in a big car. He's won in a small car. And since the man in black is officially back, maybe the promoters better tighten their purse strings, because the "Intimidator" has a strong track record at Darlington Raceway, the site of Sunday's 50th annual Pepsi Southern 500.
He'll be bringing the same car that won at Bristol, too.
The track "Too Tough To Tame," has officially been tamed by the Man in Black nine times in his illustrious career. Only David Pearson has more, and Earnhardt can tie him with one more trip to Victory Lane.
"I think we've turned the corner and are where we want to be," said the driver of the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet. "We've struggled to get back to where we need to be, and that's running up front and being in contention to win in the final laps. The guys at the shop, the crew at the track, have all come together and have given 110 percent towards getting this team back in contention. It's good to see all of the hard work paying off."
Earnhardt will have his work cut out for him this weekend. Last weekend's controversial incident with Terry Labonte on the last lap of the Goody's Headache Powder 500, which led to Earnhardt's 73rd series victory, came at a cost to the seven-time champion.
Labonte is mad at him, ostensibly for "hitting" him rather than "racing" him. The fans are mad at him. Everyone but his family, his fans and his team are probably mad at him. But Earnhardt has some pretty thick skin, so any boos this weekend shouldn't affect him.
"The race fans are critics and everyone has their opinion of what they saw last week," he said. "It happened. I wasn't trying to wreck Terry. I hate that it happened, but it did. All I can do is go to Darlington and drive my race car and do my job. Anything after that we'll have to take it as it comes."
Earnhardt reached a new plateau financially at Bristol, becoming the first driver in any form of motorsports to achieve $36 million in all-time winnings. Even a top-5 at Darlington would give Earnhardt a chance to win the Winston No Bull 5 $1 million bonus at Talladega in the Winston 500 on Oct. 17. And like Darlington, Talladega has usually been kind to Earnhardt.
Earnhardt's streak of consecutive starts is up to 601. The streak started on Sept. 9, 1979. That makes 20 years of making races, which is nothing to sneeze at considering some of the things he has fought through to get here, like his accident at Talladega in 1996 that left him with a broken sternum.
"Twenty years without missing a race is quite an accomplishment," Earnhardt said. "Driving a race car is something that I do and have done most of my life. Some people watch football, work in the yard or visit with family, I go on Sunday drives."
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