It was the waning weeks of summer 1979, and Earnhardt was
suffering from a painful fractured collarbone he suffered in a crash at Pocono Raceway
weeks earlier. Despite tremendous pain, he opted to return to the driver's seat of the No.
3 Wrangler Chevrolet on Sept. 9, just four races after the injury.
Five hundred and ninety-nine races later, he has yet to miss another one.
Only Terry Labonte, who has started 622 consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup Series events,
has started more races in a row than Earnhardt, who, when he cranks the No. 3 GM
Goodwrench Chevrolet on Sunday, will mark his 600th-straight racing weekend.
"It makes a statement that you've been around a while," Earnhardt said.
"I don't feel any older for sure. I'm excited about racing. I feel good about racing.
It's a pretty monumental thing to see 600 starts. Terry's the only other guy to get there.
He's been pretty tough. I raced with him as a rookie. When I got hurt, I was hurt and that
set us off the amount we're at or we'd be tied neck and neck for this deal."
Actually, Earnhardt would be well ahead of Labonte had he not been injured. Prior to
the injury, Earnhardt had started 28 straight races. Thus, barring his setback, he'd be
preparing for his 633rd consecutive start this weekend at Watkins Glen International.
Even though his massive string of starts is impressive, his real merit lies elsewhere.
The Intimidator has seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship trophies -- tying him
with Richard Petty as the most prolific driver ever in NASCAR racing. His last title came
in 1994, at which time his dominance of the sport began to dwindle. Now, with the right
mindset and the right components in place, the No. 3 team has begun the climb back to the
highest plateau in all of racing.
"I think everybody is in a race car to win," Earnhardt said. "It's so
competitive in Winston Cup racing today, it's tougher to win than it's ever been .We were
on top for so long, and then got sidelined with some things and it's taken us some time to
get back on the game here. You can't put your finger on why you go out and not win, or why
all the sudden do you win.
"How do you judge whether it's the driver or the car or crew chief or the engine
guy or something in between? That's why there's guys out there that haven't won, if they
ever got with the right combination of engine guy, crew chief, owner, they'd be there.
It's beyond me why Michael Waltrip hasn't won races by now. He's got a good racecar,
team's jelling and Michael's a talented driver. It's hard to say why a guy may never win.
It would be difficult for the No. 3 team to improve on superspeedways. Earnhardt's last
two victories have come on tracks larger than two miles -- one being his legendary run to
the checkered in the 1998 Daytona 500 and the other being this year's outing at Talladega.
Despite its prowess on the circuit's largest tracks, the Richard Childress Racing team
wants to prove that it can still win elsewhere as well.
"People say, 'We'll he's good at the speedways but not so good at the road courses
or Richmond or whatever.' But we'll prove that fact wrong," he said. "It's just
circumstance. Whether it's a bad day or something happens with a chassis or engine or
whatever, it just hasn't happened as consistent as it needs to or as it has in the
In the past, Earnhardt was the man to beat at every stop on the road to the NASCAR
Winston Cup Series title. Now, with his name folks mention retirement. He has no plans of
obliging them anytime soon.
"One day you're on top of the world and the next day you're not winning and
somebody's retiring you," he said. "But there's not been any talk of retirement
here. Richard and Goodwrench and I are working out the details now in our agreement for
three years after the year 2000. We still feel like we can win championships and win
races. I'm sure people want to retire you if they see you have a bad day or a bad streak,
but we've been running pretty good. We feel good about what we're doing and trying to turn
the corner and getting another championship."
For now, Earnhardt is concentrating solely on remaining in the top-10 in 1999. He
currently stands seventh in the championship standings, and continues to become more and
more competitive as he and crew chief Kevin Hamlin learn each other's tendencies. He's
finished in the top-10 13 times this season, including six of the past seven races.