Earnhardt putting together solid season
By David Poole
(Sept. 1, 1999)
We come today to praise Dale Earnhardt, not to
The controversy surrounding the finish of the Goody's 500 on
Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway has a life of its own, but that is not our subject
The last-lap bumping incident with Terry Labonte overshadows
a resurgence of Earnhardt and his race team that could wind up being a much bigger story.
One week before Bristol, Earnhardt worked his way up from the
38th starting spot to take the lead on Lap 147 in a 200-lap race. He battled with Jeff
Gordon and eventual winner Bobby Labonte until his tires wore out and wound up fifth, but
his performance drew considerable attention.
Now, as he prepares to head to Darlington for this weekend's
50th running of the Southern 500, Earnhardt finds himself once more in the place he once
belonged -- the center of attention in Winston Cup racing.
Almost lost in the debate over the last-lap contact with
Labonte at Bristol was the fact the Earnhardt became just the second driver to win at that
.533-mile track while pitting on the backstretch. He started 26th Saturday night, and
nobody had ever come from that far back to win a race at Bristol.
Nobody has, in fact, made up the kind of ground that
Earnhardt has in races over the past five months.
Earnhardt finished 25th in the season's first race at
Darlington in April, but in the 18 races since then his worst finish is a 20th at Watkins
Glen. His average finish in that span is ninth, the fourth best on the circuit behind only
Dale Jarrett (5.3), Tony Stewart (8.0) and Mark Martin (8.9).
Earnhardt's average start in those 18 races, however, has
been 23.2, which is 22nd among the 33 drivers who have started them all. That means
Earnhardt has made up an average of 14.2 positions in every race since late April. Stewart
is second in that statistic at 9.9 positions.
``This race team is a competitive team,'' Earnhardt said
after his Bristol victory, the 73rd of his career. ``We sort of get left out on
conversations a lot because we're seventh in points. ... They talk about the top five and
that's as far as they will go.''
Earnhardt has eight top-10 finishes in his past nine starts
and will go to Darlington with the same car he used to win with at Bristol.
He's no stranger to success at the 1.366-mile Darlington
track, either, with nine career victories there. That's only one short of David Pearson's
record of 10. The ironic twist is that Pearson's last Darlington victory came in the 1979
Southern 500 when he was driving a Rod Osterlund-owned car in place of Earnhardt, who had
been injured earlier during that season, his rookie year.
Earnhardt has won the Southern 500 three times, in 1987, 1989
and 1990. He finished fourth in the race last year, one year after having a mysterious
blackout on the first lap of the 1997 Labor Day weekend event.
Since that blackout, Earnhardt has faced more frequently
questions about when he might retire. He has always brushed those aside, insisting that
he's still thinking about winning races and contending for an eighth championship.
``I've been running hard the past several years,'' said
Earnahrdt, who before Saturday hadn't won a non-restrictor plate race since Atlanta in
March of 1996. ``I don't think I have given up any or laid off any.''
Aside from victories in the 1998 Daytona 500 and in this
year's first Talladega race -- both restrictor-plate races -- Earnhardt's belief that he
could once more become a consistent contender had at times seemed like wishful thinking.
But after the past two weeks, that's not so much the case.
``It feels good to win anytime, anywhere,'' Earnhardt said.
``To prove you can still win at any race track's the thing.
``We're just taking our best race car to the next race,
figuring it's our next race to try to win. All of the guys at the shop are doing all they
can to make a better race team out of it. We've got a great pit crew put together, they're
really coming together better and better each race.
``I want to race well at Darlington just like we did at
Michigan and Bristol. Darlington is a favorite race track of mine and you want to win at
places you like to race at.''
After Pearson won the Southern 500 in Earnhardt's car 20
years ago this weekend, Earnhardt climbed back in the following weekend at Richmond. On
Sunday, he'll make his 603rd consecutive Winston Cup start.
``Some people watch football, work in the yard or visit with
family,'' Earnhardt said. ``I go on Sunday drives.''
Gordon has won the Southern 500 in each of the past four
seasons. Thanks to his recent success and his record at Darlington, Earnhardt's fans this
year have at least a realistic hope that it might be Earnhardt who can halt that streak.