healthy Earnhardt looks to regain form
Dover, Del. (June 7, 1999)
Dale Earnhardt apologized for the delay.
"Thanks for coming back," said the
ever-intimidating Mr. Earnhardt. "Had some business to take care of earlier."
Thats OK, because hes Dale Earnhardt and he still
commands respect. He still believes he can be competitive every Sunday. And more than
ever, he still knows how to win.
The partnership between Earnhardt and Richard Childress has
thrived for 16 seasons, longer than any other in the Winston Cup garage and has produced
six championships, 65 victories and more than $30 million in winnings.
Although the No. 3 team struggled following a devastating
crash at Talladega in July 1996 -- where Earnhardt broke his collarbone and sternum -- the
seven-time champ came back two weeks later and miraculously won his 22nd career pole on
the 2.45 miles road course at Watkins Glen.
But, the team continued to suffer. In 1997, the team went
winless for the first time in its existence. In 1998, Earnhardt captured the ultimate
victory that had eluded him his entire career -- the Daytona 500.
The success was short-lived. Earnhardt fell to 13th in points
by the spring Dover race. A change had to be made, and Kevin Hamlin assumed the role of
The program has made aggressive strides since then and
although the team dropped to an uncharacteristic 20th in points after Darlington this
season, in the last seven races the No. 3 has posted five top-10 finishes -- including
Earnhardts 72nd career win at Talladega in April. and has moved within 37 points of
"The guys have been working hard all along," said
Earnhardt. "Theres been a lot of hard work and dedication. I think Kevin (crew
chief Hamlin) and myself are working better together. The guys are doing better on pit row
and pit stops. Its not one small thing, but a combination of things that has made a
Two major developments which have delivered significant
returns this season has been the addition of RAD -- the engineering coop between Richard
Childress, Andy Petree and Earnhardt -- and Childress decision to rearrange the No.
3s pit crew.
"Weve turn around with the aerodynamics
program," Earnhardt said. "After we saw that they werent going to give us
the 99 Monte Carlo in May -- it gave us time to go back and really work hard on the
98. We had sort of gotten behind on it.
"Theyve gotten fired up during the last couple of
races and now were running better. I think we had a better car at Charlotte than
what we finished. We finished sixth, which is great from what we been running."
Hamlin has now had a year to work with Earnhardt since
replacing Larry McReynolds as crew chief after Dover last season. Despite the somewhat
tumultuous relationship that existed on the team before his arrival, Hamlin said that he
and Earnhardt have found a happy medium.
"A seven-time champion doesnt need anyone to tell
him how to drive," Hamlin said. "I find its best to find what makes him
comfortable and proceed from there. I think were making improvements in our cars --
chassis-wise and body-wise. This spoiler and valence rule, were finally getting
handle on that and producing the numbers we used to. Weve figured out spring and
shock combinations that make our races more successful."
Although its been said that the Kannapolis, N.C.,
native hedges about his age, the 48-year-old veteran says he isnt bothered by
comments regarding his age.
"People are going to get older and young guys are going
to come in and race and get more competitive," Earnhardt said with a yawn.
"Things have changed. Its not going to stay the same. Youre not going to
be the same Dale Earnhardt you were in the years when you were winning championships. But
the competition level has changed in Winston Cup too.
"Its bottomed out from 15 cars to 25 to 30 cars
and you got to be right on and keep the team in tact to be competitive. If youre
not, youre not going to be a guy to be reckoned with every weekend and thats
the point were trying to make."
Not only is Childress pleased with progress, hes in the
process of extending Earnhardts contract for an additional three years, eclipsing
the current agreement which expires next season.
"Right now we're very positive about staying together
for three more years," said Childress. "We're going to win some races.We've been
changing our people around a lot, crew chiefs and others, and I think you'll see a
different focused Dale Earnhardt the rest of this season. He wants to win. We just had two
or three accidents earlier this year.
"The last two years Dale drove hurt. But I think now
he's the healthiest right now he's been since '96. The guy has absolutely no fear. Look at
how he ran Daytona. Look at the moves he made in the Daytona 500. Look at how he ran
Talladega. We've been competitive. We could have won at Phoenix if the race had been
started back. We were as strong as anyone."
Earnhardt agrees with Childress sentiments.
"If were going to run for points we need to run in
the top-five every week," Earnhardt said. "Consistency. Finishing races is
important, but racing is more important. Im talking about racing in the top five,
the top 10 and then having a car that can win at the end of the day. Thats what were
striving for, making us a contender in every race."