Since winning his record-tying seventh title in 1994, the
48-year-old driver has seen three other drivers sit at the head table during the NASCAR
Winston Cup Awards Banquet.
Most thought Earnhardt had a deed to that piece of property at the Waldorf-Astoria
Hotel in Manhattan in the first half of this decade. From 1990 to '94, Earnhardt took his
position at the champion's table an incredible four times.
The late Alan Kulwicki won the lucrative title in 1992 in a strange season that went to
the last lap of competition. In 1993 it was business as usual with Earnhardt holding the
cup aloft in New York.
Everybody figured in '94 it would only take a year or two for "ol' Ironhead"
to become NASCAR's first eight-time champion, breaking the tie with legend Richard Petty.
But Earnhardt ran into a roadblock he never expected with the emergence of Jeff Gordon
at Hendrick Motorsports.
There was no slow shift in the balance power. In 1995 it was more like a bloodless coup
as Gordon raced to seven victories and eight Bud Poles, taking car owner Rick Hendrick to
his first championship.
Gordon is talented but he had several aces up his sleeve including crew chief Ray
Evernham, who had nearly unlimited resources to work with at Hendrick. It was Evernham who
developed NASCAR's new technology, and new ways of doing things.
With Evernham's new scheme working, Earnhardt's team, Richard Childress Racing, found
itself a step behind in racing technology, partly because of the instability of the crew
In 1996 Earnhardt lost the services of crew chief Andy Petree to Leo Jackson, who
promised Petree an equity stake in his team. Petree bought the team the following season
and now owns two NASCAR Winston Cup Series operations, for drivers Joe Nemechek and Kenny
Meanwhile, the crew chief position at RCR was unstable. Earnhardt and Childress thought
they found the cure when they hired Larry McReynolds from Robert Yates Racing following
the 1996 season. But this projected "Super Team" never reached its lofty
potential as Earnhardt went winless during the 1997 season, one of the toughest in his
The problem year included some sort of rogue seizure at the start of the Southern 500
at Darlington Raceway that put Earnhardt in the hospital for a battery of tests. All came
All those troubles were wiped clean the following season when Earnhardt scored the one
victory that had eluded him for 20 years -- the Daytona 500. That triumph put the brakes
on a dreadful, 59-race losing streak for the proud champion.
Still, it wasn't enough to keep Earnhardt and McReynolds together. McReynolds
complained Earnhardt wasn't involved with the team enough. They split 13 races into the
season, with McReynolds going over to crew chief for Mike Skinner, Childress' other
Earnhardt got Kevin Hamlin in exchange for McReynolds and the two men quickly jelled.
The end result was Earnhardt making a stunning comeback during the 1999 season. He came
within a whisker of defending his Daytona 500 title -- which ironically was the only race
he had won since the beginning of the 1996 season; swept both races at Talladega; won a
TKO over Terry Labonte at Bristol, Tenn.; and captured his third True Value IROC
championship after winning the first three rounds.
"We've showed big improvements throughout the season winning three races and
finishing seventh in the points," said Earnhardt. "With 20 top-10 finishes, I
feel we're on the right path. If we turn those into top-5s, we'll have a good shot at the
And for Earnhardt, that's what it's all about.
Godwin Kelly is the motorsports editor for the Daytona Beach News-Journal