Earnhardt ready to go for eight?
By Dave Rodman

NEW YORK (Dec. 7, 2000) Don't bet against Dale Earnhardt winning his record eighth NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship in 2001. The sport's undisputed "Iron Man" may never break his seven-title deadlock with Richard Petty -- but he proved in 2000 that he would quit before his competitive spark is extinguished. Earnhardt, 49, had been all but written off by countless "experts" in recent years, but he revitalized his career and guaranteed its extension with a solid campaign that, but for some questionable outings in the stretch run, might've rewarded his Richard Childress Racing team with the ultimate prize.

Earnhardt came to the season finale NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway needing a gutsy performance to hold his ground in the point standings, and in true Intimidator fashion, he got it with a runner-up finish. As a result, he will be rewarded for a second-place finish in the point standings when he walks across the stage at Friday's NASCAR Winston Cup Series Awards Banquet at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria.

"I really feel bad about running so bad at Rockingham and Homestead," the GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet driver said of finishes of 17th and 20th with four and two races left in the season, respectively. "We should have been better at those tracks, and we also fell way back at Charlotte."

Indeed, Earnhardt was second in points, albeit 213 back of champion Bobby Labonte, when he arrived at Lowe's Motor Speedway for the UAW-GM Quality 500 on Oct. 8. He finished 11th there and his self-proclaimed late season slide was on. Still, he ended up with his best point finish since he chased Jeff Gordon to his inaugural championship in 1995. It was Earnhardt's third career second place championship finish.

The problem was not so much Earnhardt's finishes being as pathetic as he let on. Labonte was that good, finishing first at Lowe's, 20th at Rockingham and fourth at Homestead, where he clinched the championship. Despite winning at Talladega, Earnhardt scored only two top-5 and three top-10 finishes in the last five races while Labonte had three top-5s and nothing worse than 20th.

"I'm frustrated about letting the eighth championship slip away with the races we've had trouble with or didn't finish well in like Rockingham and Charlotte," Earnhardt said. "Homestead and Phoenix were tough races for us. We just didn't hit the mark. You've got to put those races together when it counts and we didn't."

"If we could have capitalized on some of those races, we would have been better off," Earnhardt said, shaking his head. "Those bad finishes got us where we were, and we had to race hard to get back to second."

Earnhardt actually might've lost the championship earlier in the year. He trailed Labonte by just 45 points after July's thatlook.com 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway. Earnhardt had a dismal three-race stretch beginning in the next race at Pocono where he finished 25th, eighth and 25th. Labonte outscored him by 172 points.

Earnhardt's attempt to overtake Labonte was finally hampered by the five finishes outside the top-10 in the last nine races of the season.

But Atlanta's daunting high-speed venue was the ideal forum for Earnhardt's brassy bravado and he put on a show there in 2000. He won there in the spring when he nipped Labonte by scant inches. While third-place point man Jeff Burton soldiered into 12th in the NAPA 500, Earnhardt was charging to stay in front of the Roush Racing driver who had slipped ahead of him after the Oct. 8 race.

"We've got a win and a second here this season," Earnhardt said after the finale with a grin, savoring his 29-point margin over Burton, "and if we could have been more like that at some other tracks, it might have been different."

As it was, Earnhardt came together with crew chief Kevin Hamlin and made tremendous progress in 2000 as they scored a pair of wins, 13 top-5 and 24 top-10 finishes while improving their average finish to 9.38. The father of four children -- including racers Kerry Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- watched his older son make his NWCS debut and his younger sibling contend for Raybestos Rookie of the Year.

"I've had a good time this year," Earnhardt said of watching Kerry win his first race in the ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde Series and Dale Jr. win three times in Winston Cup cars. "It's been fun to race and watch my kids race. A lot of things have happened to us in the sport and we've been excited about it."

Earnhardt, who led in 17 of the series' 34 races, equaled the series leading top-10 totals of Labonte and defending NWCS champion Dale Jarrett. He and Labonte were the only drivers in the top-40 in points to not have a DNF all season. He maintained his phenomenal string of finishing in the top-10 in NWCS points every season but two (1982, 1992) since he began his full-time driving career in 1979.

"To come out second in points is really pretty neat," Earnhardt said, reflecting on his season. "I wish we could have kicked it up one more notch. We're going to try to capitalize more on our opportunities next year and not have the bad races we had this year.

"I think Kevin Hamlin and I have got things headed in the right direction for next season. What we've done this year is going to be good going into next year. Even though we came up short this year -- every year it gets more competitive."

With his performance, and as he watched one-time rival Darrell Waltrip leave the race track for a retirement career as a television commentator, Earnhardt made a strong statement about his own racing plans.

"I'll probably know when it's time to retire when I'm racing for 31st instead of first in points," Earnhardt said. "When you're racing in the top-10 in points, I don't think that's getting less competitive.

"I'm still winning a race or two and still racing competitively. Why would you retire? Why would you even think about retiring? Why would people think you'd be ready to retire? Why would people think you're over the hill when you can still race these guys and race up front? We've had bad races like at Homestead. We finished 20th. That was a bad day, but still we finished 20th. We didn't finish 40th.

"To be a competitive driver and win races in Winston Cup -- that's quite an accomplishment. To think that this is the only opportunity I'm going to have to win that eighth championship -- I don't. I feel like I've got several opportunities -- next year and the year after. You don't win the championship every year. It's a tough thing to do." -nascar.com-