For Earnhardt, racing is fun
BROOKLYN, Mich. (June
Could this be the kinder, gentler Dale Earnhardt?
Perhaps that's taking it a bit too far in describing
Earnhardt's attitude this season, but there is a noticeable difference in the man who
earned every letter in his nickname "The Intimidator" while winning seven
Winston Cup championships.
"I'm happy as I can be. This is just fun,"
Earnhardt said. "It's fun to go race, it's fun to get in the race car and go race
Dale Earnhardt is having fun? If anything, that spells
trouble for his competitors in the Winston Cup series.
Why? For one, he's reveling in the success of his role as car
owner. Earnhardt has watched with pride as his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has already won
two races this season, his first in the Winston Cup series. And he's enjoyed watching
Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate, Steve Park, become a serious contender for race wins.
But even more telling is Earnhardt's own revival on the race
He struggled through the 1998 season, though he won his first
Daytona 500. Last season, he rebounded and finished seventh in the series points race,
while winning three races.
Though most important entering Sunday's Kmart 400 at Michigan
Speedway (1 p.m., CBS), Earnhardt is a mere 98 points behind series leader Bobby Labonte
for the 2000 championship.
Dale Earnhardt within striking distance of a NASCAR-record
eighth series title? Why wouldn't he be having fun?
"You struggle at times through your career. The ideal
situation, what you work for, is to get in that car on Sunday and go race and to be able
to go race and be a contender," he said. "Now that is fun."
Thus far this season, Earnhardt's rise to the top has come
largely without fanfare.
He didn't perform well at Daytona, but quickly made up for
that by finishing second and eighth in the next two races before he claimed his first
victory of the season, coming out ahead of Labonte in a photo finish at Atlanta in March.
And while Labonte and even Ward Burton - whose victory at
Darlington was his first since 1995 - seemed to capture the spotlight, Earnhardt
methodically continued his march to the front.
"I sort of enjoy that spot and just come up at the end
here and be a contender for the championship," he said. "I've had my day in the
press. I'll let these other guys carry the ball until the end of the game."
Park, who signed a three-year extension this weekend to stay
with Earnhardt's team, knows better than anyone how his boss operates.
"He's tough on Sunday. Mondays are easy compared to
trying to pass him on Sunday," Park said. "Sometimes I think he passes (my) car
and (Earnhardt Jr.'s) car harder than he races anybody else. If we mess up and we get off
our game a little bit and start to slip back he's (at our race shop) every day."
Being both a successful driver as well as a car owner is what
has, at least in part, fueled Earnhardt's enthusiasm this season.
He's won a race, stayed in contention for several others,
remained in the hunt for a championship and is still struck by the success of his son, who
remains the only driver to win more than one race this season.
"It's amazing to see Dale Jr. come out and win this
year. I just didn't think we could do it right off the bat. He put the pressure on Park
and myself and the rest of the guys at the shop to step up to the plate with what they've
done," Earnhardt said.
"We learn from each other. That's the great thing about
having those race teams. I've learned for (my team) and from (Richard Childress Racing
teammate Mike Skinner) and (Park) and (Earnhardt Jr.). So, we've mixed it all together and
sort of tried to help each other."
Earnhardt, 49, said in his 25-plus year career he's been in
just about every situation in the sport.
"I ran my own car and I've been a part of that. To be a
driver and an owner in this sport is pretty unique to me and to be able to be competitive
on both sides of it," he said. "We're pretty happy with it and I'm pretty
confident with my situation."
The championships, of course, have marked the highs of
Earnhardt's career. But he has had his share of lows.
But if anything, Earnhardt has been consistent. When he found
the situation he liked with Winston Cup team owner Richard Childress, in 1984, he never
The trademark black-and-white No. 3 Chevrolet has been a
thorn in many a driver's side over the years. But it has also been a symbol of success.
"Every driver goes through years or situations that
aren't favorable. I could have bailed out on Richard Childress' team when things didn't
seem like they were going our way," Earnhardt said. "Or when your job is sort of
on the line as people write you off as, `'He's too old' or `He's not competitive anymore'
or whatever, but Richard and I have a better relationship than that.
"I just hung in there with Richard and we kept working
and tuning and now we have the right situation. Now you see what we can do. I'm going to
stand in there and, I've said this before, and I feel very confident I'm not going to
change my mind with owning race teams."
Eighth championship or not, Earnhardt will likely not leave
what has become a comfortable and highly successful relationship with Childress.
With his soft, stern voice, Earnhardt says simply, "I'm
probably going to retire in that 3 car."
But not before having some fun.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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