Earnhardt aims to be at his intimidating best in '01
By Mike Mulhern, W-S Journal Reporter
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
(February 11, 2001)
The man who plays Daytona's psyche game better than
anyone is Dale Earnhardt, who warns that this year's championship may not be only for the
young and eager. And he hasn't spent the winter just idling in some tree stand.
Earnhardt, with two wins last season and a strong bid
for that elusive eighth championship, comes into this season with an even tougher swagger,
an even meaner snarl. His son matched him win for win last season, and just that is enough
to keep his fires burning, even as he turns 50.
"Richard Childress and Kevin Hamlin and all the guys
have really worked hard to get our stuff ready for this year," Earnhardt said.
"We had a pretty good year last season, though we made some mistakes at the end of
the season and didn't finish the year quite like we wanted to, and be a contender for the
"But congratulations to Bobby Labonte and the Joe Gibbs
bunch. They raised the bar a little higher and have made us work a little harder. And we
have. We're ready to go out and race for a championship this year. I know I am. I've been
focusing on the car and myself, to be in shape and be ready.
"I took on a little extra racing at the start of the
year, with the 24 Hours. I think that will enhance my road racing. It's been busy, but I'm
ready to go racing, and I'm excited.
"It's the competition that drives you to stay in shape
and do the things you've got to do to be competitive. The injury I had in '96 and '97,
after I hurt my neck, I fought it for a couple of years and then finally got it fixed
(with surgery in Winston-Salem in December 1999). And last year I could see a big
difference. And I think you'll see an even bigger difference this year. I feel great
physically. I know what it takes, I know the level you've got to rise to.
"You watch Michael (Waltrip), for example; I can't run
the miles he can run (as a marathoner), I guarantee you I can climb a tree better than he
can. And I can surely outrun Dale Jr., because he don't work out at all."
The season and the championship, though, are a 10-month
marathon, Earnhardt said. And he knows how to reach the finish line. "With the years
I've been in racing, I know how to handle it," he said. "I can pace myself.
"Dale Jr. will learn that, but he's going to have to
learn it fast, to stay on top of his game. He'll be a lot better this year than he was
last year. Last year was tough for him, because he came out right to bat competitive and
he won, and then he had some tough races. But look at (Steve) Park, he had a rough start
to the season but then came on really strong. Everybody has to adjust.
"At the first of my career, it was really fun to race
and have a good time. In '79 and '80, I had a great time. But in '81 everything fell apart
(when Rod Osterlund sold the championship team right out from under him during that
summer). It was a tough time for me. But you have tough periods, and you learn to pace
yourself, in your strategy and in your stride. And once you find your stride, like Park
has, you get consistent, and you can race competitive race after race. Steve will be that
way, and Michael, and I'm surely trying to be that way, too."
One of Earnhardt's few weaknesses over the years has been his
qualifying. For many seasons he was able to make up the difference during the race. But
lately that's been harder to do.
"I agree that I probably drive the car harder in the
race than I do in qualifying," Earnhardt said. "We worked on our qualifying
package last year, and we were better. And this year we'll be even better."
Earnhardt, of course, not only drives for Childress and
Hamlin, but he also manages his own three-car operation, which this season features three
Cup teams, with Park, Waltrip and Dale Jr. That's enough work for three men.
"It's been a lot of hard work, a lot of trial and error
things, adjusting with people, adjusting with the cars, " Earnhardt conceded.
"So Teresa and I have worked hard to give them everything they need. Both at Richard
Childress Racing and at Dale Earnhardt Inc. there is a tremendous effort that goes into
these cars and teams. Everything keeps getting more complex."
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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