Dale Earnhardt proudly hoists his trophy from winning
round two of IROC on Saturday.
Ala. (April 26, 1999)
The Saturday evening gathering to announce a race car's
paint scheme was called a news conference.
What it was, however, was a revival meeting.
The Dale Earnhardt faithful gathered to reassure their
favorite driver that he was still The Man. One fan was so intent on making Earnhardt --
and anyone else within three counties -- hear the words he actually crouched to brace
himself before loosing his yell.
The believers were in a particularly good mood. Earlier
Saturday, their stock-car racing icon had won a second straight International Race of
Champions event with a second-straight pass for the lead on the last turn of the last lap.
The driver's acolytes also had a spring in their step. Don
Hawk, Earnhardt's entrepreneurial abbot, confidently predicted Sunday would be an even
brighter day. He would turn out to be a prophet.
A day NASCAR needed
Earnhardt's fans went home from Talladega Superspeedway
positively giddy after the seven-time Winston Cup champion's weekend. Saturday's IROC
victory was merely a warm-up to Sunday's win in the DieHard 500, a triumph that Earnhardt,
his team, his fans and, yes, the sport itself badly needed.
``It amazes me how the fans have stuck with us when we're not
winning as much as we need to,'' Earnhardt said after Sunday's victory as fans chanted his
name and waited for him to give them a wave through the press box window. ``They've been
there, they've stuck with us and they still feel like we can win, like I do.''
Love Earnhardt or hate him, but NASCAR is a much better sport
to follow and to cover when the feisty legend from Kannapolis, N.C., is on his game.
That's why it's so easy to get caught up in the excitement that follows an Earnhardt
victory these days.
Sunday's win was the 72nd of Earnhardt's Winston Cup career,
but only the second in 101 races. Aside from them having both come in restrictor-plate
races, both wins share a more quirky similarity.
Earnhardt, who turns 48 on Thursday, is going west early this
week to do a cameo in a movie before racing at California Speedway next weekend. The day
after Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt also went to Hollywood to film a cameo in the regrettable
``Baseketball.'' It seems impossible that the film won't at least be better this time.
Earnhardt certainly wants to make things better when he gets
back to racing, too.
After the Daytona victory, the Richard Childress Racing team
started taking on water. By midseason, crew chief Larry McReynolds was shuffled off to run
Mike Skinner's team. Kevin Hamlin took over as crew chief on the black No. 3 and despite
some late season bright spots Earnhardt's fortunes seemed to be sinking.
Earnhardt was second to Jeff Gordon at Daytona this year, but
wrecked the next weekend at Rockingham. Things haven't been much better since. Last week
at Martinsville, Earnhardt went home with a 19th-place finish and a bad taste in his
``We've had a real crappy year so far,'' Earnhardt said
Delays on new car
Childress' operation has for more than a year been developing
the new Monte Carlo that Chevrolet teams originally hoped to debut next month. Delays in
getting NASCAR approval pushed that debut back to next season, and Earnhardt says his team
has paid a price for that.
``It's a cop out every time you give an excuse,'' he said.
``But really, honestly, the first of this year we were really planning to have that new
Monte Carlo in May. We honestly just left the door open with no new race cars coming. We
were just redoing some old cars to get through the first part of the year. We're behind
because of that.''
The thinking changed once it became clear there would be no
new model this year, and now new vehicles of the current model are being readied.
Earnhardt plans to race the first of those at California.
``If we don't run well there, then blame it on the driver,''
Earnhardt said of his California car, also the first designed with input from the
cooperative aerodynamic effort started this year among teams owned by Childress, Earnhardt
and Andy Petree.
Earnhardt knows his fans want to see him at the front of the
pack more than just at Daytona and Talladega. He wants to be there, too.
``I want to be racing for the lead with those guys,'' he
said. ``I would rather lead a race some and get beat at the end and finish second or third
or fourth and said I at least had a shot to win. ... If you race in the top five you will
win your share of races. If you don't race in the top five, you're not going to win.
That's just a fact.''
Earnhardt says it's also a fact that there's no single reason
his team has not been up to its own standards over the past two-plus seasons. ``If the
driver is off five one-hundredths of a second, and the chassis is off five one-hundredths,
and the engine is off five one-hundredths, that puts you 15 one-hundredths behind the next
guy. That's how competitive it is. And those are guys working all of the time to pick it
up. It's the whole package; it's not one part or one piece.''
Childress is quick to defend the driver's piece of the
``I've had a couple of reporters ask me if I thought Dale was
past his prime,'' Childress said. ``I think today should answer a lot of those questions.
... A lot of people questioned him and his ability. When the time comes Dale Earnhardt is
going to tell us all, but until then I feel like he can win anywhere for four or five more
years or however long he wants to do it.''
Spoken like a true believer.