Earnhardt News
2000 Season

It's not over, Earnhardt says
By David Poole
The Charlotte Observer

Darlington, S.C. (September 2, 2000)
Why, after all he has accomplished in his remarkable career, is winning at eighth Winston Cup championship so important to Dale Earnhardt?

"I want to get this eighth one so I can start working on the ninth one," he says.

That is one side of Earnhardt's reality these days. He's third in the current standings, 195 points behind leader Bobby Labonte coming into Sunday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

But Earnhardt starts sixth today at a track where he has won nine times. Labonte starts 38th at a track where he has never won. If there's a rally in the cards, today's race would seem to be a likely place for it to start.

"It's not over," Earnhardt said of the points race.

The same statement also applies the other side of Earnhardt's reality, however.

As competitive as he has been this season - Earnhardt has one win, eight top-five finishes and 18 top 10s in 23 starts - the Kannapolis native still faces frequent questions these days about how long he will continue to race for victories and championship in the dangerous world of stock-car racing.

"I'll know when it's time to quit," Earnhardt says matter of factly when the subject comes up.

Earnhardt will turn 50 next April 29, and clearly he understands that a racing career, no matter its brilliance, is a finite thing. There will come a time when Earnhardt's driving days end, and he has begun preparing for that in many ways.

He is building a business for the future in Dale Earnhardt Inc., a racing operation that this year has won with drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park in Winston Cup and with rookie Ron Hornaday in the Grand National series.

As tough as it is to be successful in motorsports these days, however, that is the easy part of Earnhardt's transition. The difficult part that remains is the personal transition. He has seen the travails of Richard Petty and now Darrell Waltrip, for whom the desire to remain in the arena outlasted their opportunity to remain consistently competitive.

Can Earnhardt walk away before that happens to him? Will his desire to leave on his own terms win out over his drive to win that one more race or lead that one more lap?

"The bottom line is I'm excited about driving the race car," Earnhardt says of his black No. 3 Chevrolet. "The bottom line is I still want to win. The bottom line is if I get behind the steering wheel, I'm not happy with where I am at. I want to be closer to the front, or in the front. That has kept me where I am today and, hopefully, it can keep me there for a couple more years."

On Thursday afternoon at Governors Run Country Club in Lamar, S.C., about 15 miles from the Darlington track, Earnhardt was the featured guest at a news conference preceding the track's annual golf tournament.

In between facing questions from reporters and engaging in some friendly banter with track president Jim Hunter, Earnhardt sat and ate lunch at a table with David Pearson and Bud Moore.

Earnhardt said Moore, a legendary car owner from Spartanburg for whom Earnhardt drove in 1982 and 1983 before going to Richard Childress Racing, was the man who helped create Earnhardt's on-track image.

"If you drove for Bud Moore, you couldn't ride around more than a lap or two behind somebody's race car before he'd come over the radio and say, `If you can't pass him knock him out of the way,' " Earnhardt said.

While standing in the line to get his food, Earnhardt had asked a pair of reporters how old Pearson had been when he retired, and chided them for not having that information on instant recall. One remembered that Pearson's last start came in 1986, but neither had at hand the fact that Pearson would have been approaching his 52nd birthday at the time.

According to someone sitting with them, Pearson and Earnhardt talked about the subject. Pearson, in fact, prodded Earnhardt on the issue, asking him what more was there for him to do, what was left for him to accomplish.

The immediate answer to that question is to win the Southern 500 Sunday for the fourth time in his career. That would give Earnhardt a total of 10 victories at the 1.366-mile track, tying him with Pearson as the track's all-time winner.

Pearson's 10th Darlington win came in 1979 in the Southern 500 in a car owned by Rod Osterlund. Pearson was driving that car in place of a rookie driver who was sitting out his fourth straight race after being injured at Pocono earlier that year. That rookie was Dale Earnhardt.

It may be coincidence, but today's race with be the 637th straight in which Earnhardt has competed since that day Pearson won in his car at Darlington.

If Earnhardt were to win today and Labonte fail to rebound completely from his start deep in the field stemming from a crash of his primary car during practice on Friday, Earnhardt could creep right back into the thick of a championship battle. If that happens, any thoughts about his ultimate departure from the sport will be shoved into the background.

"If you can gain 10, 15, 20 (points) every race and look around and you're going toward (the final race at) Atlanta and you're only 20 behind instead of 195, then you've got a shot at it," Earnhardt said. "Anything can happen that last race. If we can just keep chipping away and start them wondering.

"This thing is not over by a long shot," he said.

The points race or the career.



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