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Darlington debacle faint memory for Earnhardt
The Earnhardt Connection

Darlington, South Carolina (August 31, 1998)

Dale Earnhardt

What a difference a year makes for seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt at Darlington Raceway.

On Sunday, Sept. 6, during the historic 49th Pepsi Southern 500, Earnhardt will be one of five drivers shooting for the $1 million "Winston No Bull 5" bonus, a far cry from where he was at Darlington during last year's Labor Day weekend classic -- a hospital room. Ever since Earnhardt strapped on his helmet, donned a uniform and strapped himself behind the wheel at Darlington, the driver and track have almost become synonymous with each other. Their personalities are mirrors ... both tough, both mean, both unforgiving and both aggressive.

But, something unusual happened a year ago in the Pepsi Southern 500 that gave the track the upper hand. Earnhardt experienced one of the strangest, most mysterious moments in the history of NASCAR, blacking out once the green flag fell to start the prestigious race.

"I think the martians came and took me away for a little while," Earnhardt said, "but they won't get me again. I'm going back for revenge this time around."

The scenario saw the full field scream through turn one, everyone that is, everyone except Earnhardt, who went straight into the turn one outer wall, bouncing off like a ping-pong ball. Slowly, the beaten and battered Chevrolet made its way around the track, then finally to the pits.

Earnhardt was pulled from the car, taken to the infield care center and then on to a hospital in Florence. No one knew what had happened. The driver who had dominated Darlington so many times was now in a hospital, leaving doctors with questions and fans holding their breath.

"The doctors were great, and I actually watched the end of the race on television from my room." said Earnhardt, speaking of Jeff Gordon's Winston Million victory over Jeff Burton. "I felt fine that night. It was just one of those 'once-in-a-lifetime' things that happens. That night, Jim Hunter, President of the track, visited me, and I told him I was ready to tackle the track again. It's not going to get the best of me. Now, I've got more reason to win Darlington than ever. I won't be in a hospital room this year when the checkered flag falls. I think we'll be in Victory Lane."

One can expect Earnhardt to be in "typical" Earnhardt aggressive style when he returns to Darlington for the Pepsi Southern 500. He knows he'll have to beat the entire 43-car field, especially the other four drivers eligible for the $1 million, which include his Richard Childress teammate Mike Skinner, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and three-time defending Pepsi Southern 500 winner Jeff Gordon.

The fivesome became eligible by taking the first five finishing positions in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon became the second driver in history last year to claim the Winston Million at Darlington, then took home the extra cash with yet another triumph at Indy. He could make it a third million at the track "Too Tough To Tame."

Earnhardt, meanwhile, has never won the $1 million bonus from Winston. He has, however, gone to Victory Lane at Darlington, and he hasn't forgotten the way there. He's a hungry, smart racer.

In his career, the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series Champion has shown an intense, competitive spirit and exerted an energetic vigor, especially at Darlington. It's enabled the '79 NASCAR Rookie of the Year to capture nine triumphs at NASCAR's original superspeedway, three of which came in the Pepsi Southern 500. And, in pretty much every win, he dominated.

His savvy style of driving with his get-up-and-go attitude makes him one of kind, sorta like Darlington. The two remain alike, and maybe Earnhardt thinks this is the year he adds another cool million to his already nearly $31 million in career NASCAR earnings. Don't bet against the "Intimidator."