Earnhardt News
2001 Season

Here's betting on Earnhardt's 8th title
Age, obstacles aside, eighth title within reach
By David Poole, The Charlotte Observer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (February 14, 2001)
2001 will be a season of milestones for Dale Earnhardt.

On April 22 at Talladega Superspeedway, Earnhardt will start his 656th consecutive race to break Terry Labonte's NASCAR "ironman" record. The following Sunday, Earnhardt will mark his 50th birthday as he races at California Speedway.

And in November, he will celebrate a record eighth Winston Cup championship.

He will do that after NASCAR gets the one thing it needs most in the season that starts with Sunday's Daytona 500 - a tight race for the championship.

Earnhardt will emerge as champion for the first time since 1994 in a down-to-the-wire race with defending champion Bobby Labonte and with Jeff Burton, who will not only continue to distinguish himself as one of the sport's top drivers, but continue to emerge as one of its most respected figures.

Clearly, there are reasons to doubt a prediction of an Earnhardt championship.

For starters, there's his age.

The oldest driver to win the championship is Bobby Allison, who was 45 days shy of his 46th birthday when he claimed the 1983 title. Of the 44 drivers who've won at least 10 races in their Winston Cup careers, only Allison and Harry Gant have even won races, let alone championships, after turning 50 - eight by Gant and one by Allison.

Earnhardt contends, however, that age is merely a number. Neck surgery before the 2000 season alleviated lingering pain from injuries suffered in 1996 and 1997, and he says he feels better now than he has in years.

"Competition drives you to stay in shape and do the things you've got to do to be competitive," Earnhardt says. "I feel great, I'm fit to drive the car. I know what it takes."

There's also Earnhardt's average, at best, qualifying record over the past few years. Qualifying has never been his specialty, he has just 22 career poles to go with his 76 career race victories. He last won a pole on the Watkins Glen road course in 1996 and last year started outside the top 20 in half of the season's 34 races.

Why does that matter? Only 50 winners in the 978 races ever held at tracks where the Winston Cup circuit will race this year - 5.11 percent - started outside the top 20. And while winning races doesn't always have the most to do with winning championships, it's still harder to finish consistently well when you start poorly.

No problem, Earnhardt says.

"I drive a race car that is comfortable and I drive it on the edge during the race," he explains. "I drive the car harder in the race than I do in qualifying. We worked on the qualifying package last year and I did qualify better. This year, I think we'll be even better than last year."

The biggest single factor working against Earnhardt may well be the depth of the field of other title contenders, which features a mix of rising young stars and proven veterans.

As Tony Stewart, Labonte's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, continues to mature, a championship for him seems to be only a matter of time. A resurgence by Jeff Gordon, who has won three championships since Earnhardt won his seventh, is certainly possible.

New crewmen added to 1999 champion Dale Jarrett's team last year have had a full season to build chemistry, and his Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd seems only a few steps away from title contention.

Like Gordon, Mark Martin could rebound from a disappointing 2000 and get right back into the title hunt. And Rusty Wallace ran strong all last season and needs only to find a modicum of consistency to make a run at a second career title.

And those are just the likely suspects. Unexpected challengers could emerge, too.

Competition, however, certainly doesn't scare Earnhardt. It is, in fact, his life's blood. Watch him in the first of Thursday's two Gatorade 125s at Daytona International Speedway, where he starts 14th after having a string of 10-straight victories in his qualifying race snapped last year (Noon, Fox Sports Net).

Earnhardt's car was running at the end of every race last season, a claim only he and Labonte can make, and Earnhardt had at least one top-10 finish at every track the circuit visited twice last year. He edged Burton for second in the final standings and scored a pair of memorable victories, edging Labonte at the finish line at Atlanta early in the year and roaring through the pack in the final laps at Talladega in October.

The tires that Goodyear will supply this season will be made of a harder compound, suggesting that drivers will have to adapt to looser handling cars this year. Earnhardt is recognized as a master at driving a loose car.

The best reason to pick Earnhardt as the 2001 champion is far simpler than any of that.

As remarkable as he has been throughout his career, not even Earnhardt can race forever. If he is to break his tie with Richard Petty and become the sport's only eight-time champion, this season looms as his last best chance.

If someone asked you to choose the one driver most likely to come through in a make-or-break situation, who would you choose?

I'll take Earnhardt.



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