History The Earnhardt Connection

Earnhardt intimidating again
The Earnhardt Connection
Daytona Beach, Florida (February 13, 1998)

It's becoming an increasingly common sight in the garage area these days at Winston Cup races.

Dale Earnhardt walks by, and people simply look at each other and nod approvingly without comment.

They don't have to say anything. Just the way Earnhardt carries himself tells them everything they need to know.

The body language, says Earnhardt, is no longer bothered by the health concerns and competitive struggles that turned 1997 into a year that the seven-time series champion would rather forget.

At age 46 and entering his 20th season on stock car racing's premier circuit, The Intimidator appears to be back - all the way.

"Mentally, he's just different," Don Hawk said. "I can equate it to a race horse. They have an expression with a race horse that he's up on the bit, up on the iron. I own some race horses, and you can always tell. You get that feel when you look at their eyes and you look at their ears. They're perky. That's how he is."

Hawk is one of Earnhardt's closest confidants. As president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., Hawk oversees everything from the driver's 400-acre farm to his lucrative souvenir and marketing empire.

For now, Earnhardt's outside interests are taking a back seat to racing in general, and specifically to his bid to win the Daytona 500, one of the few jewels that has eluded him.

"He was really so anxious to get here that he couldn't wait to get here," Hawk said. "He actually came a couple days early. He came down here on Monday and we didn't even need to be here until Wednesday. I think that's how ready he was to come to Daytona and start putting things behind him."

Earnhardt, winless since March of 1996 in Atlanta, a span of 59 races, will start fourth in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I'm still determined as ever," said Earnhardt, who earned his spot on the starting grid by overpowering the field in the second of the Gatorade Twin 125s on Thursday. He put his Chevrolet Monte Carlo up front on the first lap and stayed there the rest of the way.

It was the kind of overpowering performance that made his competitors take notice.

"I'll tell you," said Jeff Gordon, the defending Winston Cup and Daytona 500 champion. "I think he's going to be the guy to beat on Sunday."

That's not a line that was used very often to describe Earnhardt last year.

His first year with crew chief Larry McReynolds began with an average finish of 22nd in the opening three races, putting Earnhardt into a hole from which he never fully recovered.

His struggles stretched through the spring and into the long, hot grind of summer, only to be punctuated at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend. Earnhardt twice nodded off at the wheel before the Southern 500 began, and when the race started he wrecked on the first lap and had to be carried from his car like a rag doll.

An extensive series of medical tests at several hospitals failed to find anything wrong, and Earnhardt returned to the track the next weekend.

"I think the clean bill of health helped him a whole lot. The physical was so good and so intense," Hawk said. "Let's face it, if you and I get run through it, too, and we've got nothing wrong, at least if nothing else you'll feel pretty froggy for a couple months, feel pretty good."

Earnhardt had six top-10 finishes over the last nine races of the year, including seconds at Dover Downs International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, and a third at Charlotte Motor Speedway, helping him rally for a fifth-place finish in the 1997 driver standings.

"Larry's got us dialed in pretty good," Earnhardt said. "I'm very, very comfortable with what we've got going. It just took a little time, more time than I thought it would."

While McReynolds has worked hard to return the team to its spot among the sport's elite, Earnhardt has been doing his part as well. Long known for sleeping four hours or less each night and then catching little naps during the day, Earnhardt has been getting up as early as 4:30 a.m. to work out regularly in the gym at his home in Mooresville, N.C.

"It's tough not to win," he said. "It's tough to go a year and not win. If you were a basketball or football or baseball team, you'd really be on the outs. All the managers and everybody would be getting thrown out."

But Earnhardt has survived to get a chance to add to his list of 70 career victories. He would love for No. 71 to come at the Daytona 500, where he has dominated on an almost yearly basis but has yet to be up front at the end.

Ask Earnhardt about the 0-for-19 Daytona drought, and he smiles and flashes a thumbs-up.

"It's time," he said.

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