History The Earnhardt Connection

The 'Intimidator' frightened by Ford Taurus
The Earnhardt Connection
Daytona Beach, Florida (January 25, 1998)

They won't drop the green flag to start NASCAR's golden anniversary season for three weeks, yet Dale Earnhardt already is singing the blues.

There are those who will say his biggest complaint is a career-worst 59-race winless streak, but he says it's not the past that bothers him. It is the immediate future of Chevrolet drivers like himself that most concerns the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

And, to a certain extent, NASCAR recognized the imbalance resulting in 19 Ford victories to 11 by Chevrolets in 1997. It approved a new Chevy engine, expected to get about 50 more horsepower in 1998.

"It's not panning out to be any better than what we had," Earnhardt said. "We need more spoiler, more downforce."

Meanwhile, NASCAR has approved the use of the Ford Taurus -- the first four-door car in series history -- as a replacement for the discontinued Thunderbird.

With that change, the Ford contingent expects to find itself behind early in the season. But Earnhardt doubts that any disadvantage will last for long.

Asked if NASCAR would allow late changes if the Taurus proves less competitive than desired, he said: "I don't see why not. They'll give them anything they want."

It was another salvo in what figures to be another battle between brands over who gets the best concessions from the sanctioning body.

"It's the same story we go through every year: 'This car is better than that one,"' said Rusty Wallace, Ford's point man late last year for development of the new model.

Wallace doesn't believe Ford's model switch will be as easy as Chevy's 1995 transition from the Lumina to the Monte Carlo.

"This will be a real good car, but it's going to take a while," he said. "Time is against us. After many, many years of developing the Thunderbird, they said, 'OK guys, six months to make this thing fly,' after General Motors had a year and half before they brought their car out. We're trying to bring our car out in six months. It's tough."

Mark Martin, who captained Ford's anti-Chevy talk early last year, agreed. He doesn't know what to expect when the Winston Cup season begins Feb. 15 with the Daytona 500.

"We'll probably go to Daytona behind," Martin said. "So the guys will have to work harder and longer hours, cut more stuff up and change more stuff.

"It's going to be a challenge, but a realistic challenge. There are no choices out there for us. This is what we have to do."

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett accepts that, but figures his and the other top Ford teams will get things straightened out without much help from NASCAR.

"It's not like they threw us out in the cold," he said. "We have a very good race car to work with."

Bill Elliott, a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, says patience is the key.

"I think the Taurus is going to come together," he said after a test at Talladega Superspeedway, Daytona's sister track. "We're still behind, but we're making some progress."

Ray Evernham, crew chief for two-time and defending series champion Jeff Gordon, thinks the Taurus will go through growing pains.

"It's got a good amount of downforce," said Evernham, whose driver accounted for all but one Chevy victory last year -- including the Daytona 500.

But the Taurus creates more drag than the Thunderbird, which could mean the new model will be at a disadvantage in the opener because long and flat straightaways dominate the 2 1/2-mile Daytona International Speedway.

"But we're going to have a lot of trouble with them everywhere else," Evernham said.

Daytona favors speed over downforce and penalizes drag. On shorter tracks on which a greater percentage of the racing surface takes the form of banked turns, downforce is the key and drag not such a hindrance.

Earnhardt wonders if any of that will matter. He can't seem to get away from the idea that NASCAR gives the Fords too much help.

"They took a four-door car and made a race car out of it," he said. "What else you want to do? They build it like they want it."

1998 Unimount Enterprises