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Earnhardt goes to Washington
Jon McClintock
Washington D.C. (June 16, 1998)

Proclaiming "we are going to win some races before this year is over," NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt wowed the National Press Club luncheon today. The appearance was yet another first for NASCAR and for Earnhardt, and offered up some hints to the future, if not outright news.

Earnhardt spoke briefly before answering a fistful of written questions by an enthusiastic audience, during which he touched on two matters of special note: Tobacco legislation and European NASCAR racing.

"I think Mr. (Bill) France wants to race somewhere in Europe next year," said Earnhardt while commenting on the sport's growth. "I vote for Monte Carlo, myself. He took me over there a year or so ago and we toured around and visited. It's a pretty impressive place to race."

There was no provision for follow-up questions - but NASCAR's President didn't look especially pleased the topic was in the air. News of the Japan races was tightly guarded until release at the 1995 annual banquet in New York.

Earnhardt admitted later that he and car owner Richard Childress had discussed not going to the third and final race in Japan (after two runs at Suzuka) "but there's a new track, so I have to."

Asked who would pick up the slack if RJ Reynolds Tobacco was forced to stop support of NASCAR racing, Earnhardt made a joking reference about having to find the card he was carrying with the properly prepared answer. Then he spoke highly of the Winston brand maker and may have dropped a hint.

"You know, that would be a tough thing to fill their shoes," he said. "Like I said about Coca Cola - they go that extra mile to support their investment in NASCAR. Not only to put their name on NASCAR or some of the drivers, but also to put their bill boards up to advertise, to advertise we're coming to town."

Coca Cola's recent "official" status in NASCAR, despite Pepsi's long history with the sanctioning body, has fueled speculation that the soft drink manufacturer is poised to either join or replace the large tobacco company.

"I'm sure Mr. France has a plan," said Earnhardt. "He always does."

The man known as "The Intimidator" admitted he had a hard time sleeping the night before, and had worked later in the garage in hopes of tiring out. He had little to fear as the Washington Press Corps laughed at Earnhardt's quips and gave him a standing ovation.

"I'm a little bit of a politician myself," he warned them. "I politic for better rule changes for the Chevrolet.

"The problem with the Taurus in NASCAR?" he replied to a question. "The Taurus problem is they invented the Taurus. Our benchmark is to be the best Chevrolet on the racetrack. Right now there's a big difference between the 24 and the 3 but we've got people who can figure it out."

Earnhardt tried twice to duck questions about restricter plates, calling them "political." But he still offered his solution to making sure fans won't get hurt at unrestricted races:

"My idea is to move the fans back," joked Earnhardt.

The audience chuckled when he was questioned about how highway driver's should deal with the "road rage" phenomenon.

"I had a little bit of that Saturday afternoon," he said, referring to an encounter with Rusty Wallace after the two collided in practice and Earnhardt was forced into the wall - and a backup car.

"I went over and discussed how I felt," deadpanned Earnhardt about a garage encounter with Wallace where he is reported to have angrily put his fist up against Wallace's throat.

"I think the frustration of Charlotte - tearing up two cars in Charlotte, the cracked ribs and the team being behind so far....it was frustrating," he said. "The car had been running so good in practice.

"I was driving the car back into the garage area and, luckily Rusty's car wasn't on pit road somewhere....(laughter)...so I went on into the garage and the best thing is to talk to him personally, and we handled it. No on else was involved or hurt. Fortunately.

"But I did. I said, 'Rusty? Hi. How are ya doing."

Dale Earnhardt, Jr will drive another full year in the Busch series, according to his father, who says his talented son hasn't graduated from "a double-wide to a brick house" yet and is still a challenge to "make sure he behaves himself."

Earnhardt said he expects Darrell Waltrip to continue substituting for the recovering Steve Park through the July Pocono race, before the Brickyard 400, and said his own contract with Childress extends through 2000 and retirement isn't until "several years down the road."

"Well that depends on Richard Childress," he said. "As long as we can step in a car and feel we're going to win that day. If Richard don't hire me back, I'll gonna have to (retire)...cause I don't want to drive for anybody else.

"I sure don't want to drive for my wife," he said. "I drove for Teresa in the Busch car before, but she doesn't pay too good."