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Earnhardt hopes Charlotte track leads to recovery
Joe Macenka
Associated Press

Charlotte, North Carolina (May 19, 1998)

Dale Earnhardt hopes the same track that injured him last weekend will help heal him in the coming days.

Heading into Wednesday night's time trials for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt is looking for a ray of hope in a year that has turned sour after winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

Earnhardt was optimistic that his first-ever victory in the sport's premier race would propel him to his record eighth Winston Cup championship. Instead, he has just one top-five finish since then, and he is in seventh place in the driver standings, 234 points behind leader Jeremy Mayfield.

"It's time to turn it around and win races. That's what it's all about," he said Tuesday. "If you don't win and aren't competitive enough to win, you're not going to win championships."

Earnhardt gave his team a scare Saturday night at Charlotte when he hit a patch of fluid and careened into a concrete retaining wall during The Winston, the circuit's annual all-star event.

The crash left Earnhardt with what he described as one slightly cracked rib and numerous bruises, but he said that won't hamper his ability to go the distance in Sunday's 600-mile race, the longest in the sport. Earnhardt began getting daily treatments from a therapist Sunday, and he said there was significant improvement by Tuesday.

"I'm sure if I can get up front and be racing, I'll forget about how sore it is," he said.

Earnhardt has plenty of incentive to win Sunday's event on Charlotte's 1.5-mile, high-banked oval. He is one of five drivers eligible for the Winston No Bull 5, a bonus program from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. that is designed to pay $1 million to one of five possible winners at each of five designated events on the circuit.

Drivers qualify for the bonus by finishing in the top five at the previous No Bull 5 event -- in this case, the Daytona 500. That means Earnhardt could collect the $1 million bonus by winning the Coca-Cola 600. Also eligible are the drivers who finished second through fifth at Daytona -- Bobby Labonte, Mayfield, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace.

"It's pretty exciting to have an opportunity because of Winston to win $1 million. We're putting a lot of effort into it," Earnhardt said. "Of course, the car that we were putting extra effort into it with, we wrecked last week."

While Earnhardt's team had to prepare a new car for Coca-Cola 600 week, Jeff Gordon and his crew were addressing a different kind of problem they encountered in The Winston. Gordon was on the way to winning the 14th annual all-star affair when he ran out of gas heading into the last lap, handing the victory to Mark Martin.

The odds were in Gordon's favor to bounce back strong in Wednesday night's first round of qualifying, when time trials are to set the first 25 starting positions for the 43-car grid.

Gordon has won four consecutive Coca-Cola 600 poles and got his first Winston Cup victory at the 1994 race. Since then he has gone on to win 30 more races, including the 1997 Coca-Cola 600, and two series championships.

Mayfield is still looking for the first victory of a Winston Cup career that began in 1993, but he comes into this week's event on a roll. Last weekend he started on the pole and won the Winston Open, a qualifying race for The Winston.

"We had a little streak going over the weekend and we'd like to get that momentum back," he said. "We've gotten a little taste of winning, too, and everybody on this team liked that feeling a lot -- a whole lot."