Earnhardt News
2001 Season

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 championship.

"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."



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