A Cup of chemistry has
Earnhardt on track
(Mar. 16, 2000)
By Bill Weber
I already know what one of my lines for NASCAR 2Day will
be this weekend: "Four races, four different winners."
I think that line is the best aspect of the 2000
Winston Cup season so far. There were 11 different winners in 1999. This week, at
Darlington, the possibility exists for the series to go 5-for-5. 34-for-34? Nah, never
But, the excitement that filled the chilly air around Atlanta
continues to swirl here in Charlotte and I hope it does where you are, too. I added last
Sunday's race to my list of Winston Cup events that I'm glad I can say, "Hey, I was
there!" And I'm glad I was.
|Five of Dale Earnhardt's
Winston Cup championships can be traced back to Darlington success.
Dale Earnhardt now has 75 Winston Cup wins -- sixth on the
all-time list, just eight wins behind fifth-place Cale Yarborough and just nine behind the
two men tied for third, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (84 wins each). Earnhardt has
always expressed his desire to win an eighth Winston Cup championship, and you know he
wants that. But one thing I believe he's also had in the back of his mind is career wins.
Obviously, he won't catch "The King" Richard Petty,
who won 200 races. And he is still 30 behind second-place David Pearson. But, don't you
think a guy like Earnhardt has had an eye on the magic number of 85? That's a number that
would put him in sole possession of third place.
Waltrip has 30 races left in his "Victory Tour" to
improve his position, but Earnhardt just signed a contract extension with car owner
Richard Childress. And while there is no guarantee he will drive to the end of that
contract -- Earnhardt will be 49 next month -- it's a good bet he will. And three more
wins this season, and three in each of the next two seasons, would put him right at 84. Oh
Can Earnhardt win three more races this season? Well, his
next chance comes in the Mall.com 400 this weekend at Darlington, S.C. Ten of Pearsons'
105 wins came at Darlington. Earnhardt has won nine times at Darlington, and this weekend
he's a strong candidate to tie Pearsons. And break my "4-for-4" streak.
Earnhardt's reputation as the dominator at Darlington began
when he won the Rebel 500 in the spring of 1982. Driving a Ford -- yes, a Ford, for Bud
Moore -- Earnhardt started fifth and beat Yarborough to the checkered flag. Bill Elliott
finished third and Benny Parsons was fourth, the only four cars on the lead lap after 500
miles. Earnhardt won three of four Darlington races beginning in the spring of 1986 when
he beat Darrell Waltrip by half a second. Earnhardt lapped everybody else. He led 335 of
367 laps. It was, well, let's just say it lacked some drama, unless you were an Earnhardt
In 1987, it was an Earnhardt sweep. In the spring, race
leader Bill Elliott ran out of gas on the final lap, and Earnhardt passed him in the final
turn to take the win. Dale led 238 of those 367 laps. In the fall, Earnhardt beat Rusty
Wallace and Richard Petty in a race shortened to 202 laps by rain. Earnhardt continued to
flex his muscle at Darlington by winning three in a row beginning in the fall of 1989, and
sweeping both races there in 1990. On his way to seven Winston Cup championships,
Earnhardt has had a steady date with Victory Lane at Darlington. Is he on his way to an
eighth title? Maybe the "Lady In Black" will give us a hint.
Earnhardt began the new century with a new car and new
confidence. The car is important, but the confidence is a must. Earnhardt won five of his
Winston Cup championships in a 12-year period -- four of those with Kirk Shelmerdine as
"In my relationship with a crew chief, confidence is a
big thing to me," Earnhardt said Saturday morning in Atlanta. "I have to have a
lot of confidence. And that depth and confidence was there with Kirk, I mean tremendously.
And it was there with Andy (Petree)."
Petree was crew chief for Earnhardt in the back-to-back
championship seasons of 1993 and 1994. The pair won 10 races together. In 1995, Petree and
Earnhardt paired for five more wins, and finished second in the championship to Jeff
Gordon -- just 34 points behind.
But Petree left following the 1995 season, and in 96 starts
from 1996 through 1998, Earnhardt won just three times, and drove for three different crew
chiefs -- David Smith, Larry McReynolds and his current crew chief Kevin Hamlin.
"Larry came on and instilled confidence again,"
said Earnhardt. "We worked hard, but we just didn't have the same (chemistry), the
personalities were a conflict. It wasn't the work or what we were doing. The confidence in
Larry and in his capabilities and what he can do is still there, strong.
"And then, we did the swap and Kevin came on board.
(Hamlin came over to the 3 after working with Earnhardt teammate Mike Skinner). With
Kevin, I have that same confidence and that same feel. It's more like Kirk, than any (crew
chief) I've had between them. Even though Petree was great, David Smith worked hard and we
tried hard, (and) Larry was the best there ever was with the work, there was the conflict
"We're still friends. The friendship is still there with
all of them, but the two that are the most alike are Kevin and Kirk. Kevin and us, we're
thinking a lot alike, like Kirk and I did."
And threatening to race, and win, like Earnhardt and Kirk
The last time Earnhardt won back-to-back races was in July of
1993, winning the Miller Genuine Draft 500 in Pocono on July 18 and going to Victory Lane
the following week in the Diehard 500 at Talladega. He won six races that year. He won his
sixth Winston Cup championship that year.
His last win at Darlington was in 1994, and ignited a streak
of three wins in five races. He won four races that year. He won his seventh Winston Cup
championship that year. Now Earnhardt brings his car, his crew chief, his confidence and
his quest back to Darlington. Five of his seven championship seasons have included at
least one win at Darlington.
Earnhardt fans already know Dale won the title the last two
times the year ended in zero. What they want to know now is ... Will 2000 be number 3?
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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