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Earnhardt returns to Daytona to test
Brett Borden
Daytona Beach, Florida (June 24, 1998)

Dale Earnhardt returned to Daytona International Speedway, the site of his celebrated victory in February's Daytona 500, for testing in preparation for the July 4 Pepsi 400. If his return made him misty eyed, though, it wasn't the emotion of the moment. The areas surrounding Daytona are plagued with fires brought on by drought, resulting in a smokey haze that has enveloped the city each morning recently.

"How 'bout all this smoke?" said Earnhardt. "I think it's unfortunate for the residents of Florida. It's tough for all these people sitting at home waiting for the fire to get to them. Hopefully there's some relief on the way."

By relief Earnhardt was referring to rain, but he has experienced relief of a different sort lately. After his season-opening victory at Daytona, the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet has struggled to be a factor in any race since. Poor qualifying efforts by Earnhardt and teammate Mike Skinner led team owner Richard Childress to swap crew chiefs Larry McReynolds and Kevin Hamlin two weeks ago. Hamlin had been working with the No. 31 Lowe's Chevrolet driven by Skinner.

After Daytona and before the crew chief switch was made, Earnhardt's average starting position was 33.1. He has since qualified 25th for the Miller Lite 400 at Michigan Speedway and 11th for the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway, though at Michigan an accident in practice relegated him to a starting position of 43rd. His average finish since the switch has improved from 15.5 to 11.5, including an eighth at Pocono last Sunday.

"Our team's on the upswing," said Earnhardt. "Both teams, actually. We both seem to be running a little bit better and that's what we wanted to do."

Testing is of vital importance for Earnhardt for the Pepsi 400, as his car that won the Daytona 500 is on display at DAYTONA USA, "the Ultimate Motorsports Attraction," located outside Turn 4 of the speedway, and is unavailable for the race.

"This test is very important to us," the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion said. "Mike Dillon tested yesterday for us and we got some preliminary stuff out of the way. My car's over there. We might try to sneak in and get some parts off it."

Morgan Shepherd participated in his second Daytona test this month, driving a second car for RCR.

Earnhardt, like most of the residents of central Florida, hopes some rain will sneak in and put out the fires before the Pepsi 400 rolls around. Speedway officials announced Wednesday that the race is still scheduled to be run at 8 p.m. EDT on July 4 per the original schedule.

"I sure hope this all clears off," he said. "It sure would be pretty to have a clear night of racing under the lights."