Not many in his legion of fans had truly written off seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt, but Earnhardt and crew chief Kevin Hamlin made a capital-letter statement that they were back in 1999. Earnhardt finally achieved...
Not many in his legion of fans had truly written off seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt, but Earnhardt and crew chief Kevin Hamlin made a capital-letter statement that they were back in 1999.
Earnhardt finally achieved one of his ultimate goals, a Daytona 500 win, in 1998. But from the Purolator 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 1996 to the 1999 DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in April, that Daytona 500 victory was the only mark in the victory column by Earnhardt, who has 74 career NASCAR Winston Cup Series scores.
No wonder the faithful might've been thinking about shaking their heads in doubt. But it was all premature according to Earnhardt.
"I'm not thinking about retirement by any means," Earnhardt said emphatically after scoring victory No. 74 -- which came when he won the Winston 500 in October, giving Earnhardt a Talladega sweep in '99. "It's real funny to me that all of a sudden I became Dale Sr. I mean, Darrell Waltrip's the guy who's talking about retirement, not Dale Earnhardt.
"And I'm still winning races and running in the top-10 in points all the time and have for the last several years."
Earnhardt's trip across the stage at the Waldorf-Astoria will be his seventh straight and his 19th in his 21-year career in "The Bigs." Earnhardt and crew chief Hamlin truly hit their stride in 1999, with seven top-5s and 21 top-10 finishes. It's no wonder that car owner Richard Childress is also talking the talk, since his team has stepped up this season and walked the walk.
"We're going to win that eighth championship, that's our No. 1 goal right now," Childress said in the stretch run of the championship chase, as Earnhardt held an outside shot at the top-5. A second Daytona 500 is surely a possibility, as is another title to go with the last six he has won with Childress.
"Dale Earnhardt can still do it," Childress said, "and anyone that's ever doubted it made a big mistake."
Some had said that Earnhardt had too many other business ventures going on -- a farm, auto dealerships, race teams in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Divison and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and his souvenir business. That's no distraction, according to people in the know.
"He's got a lot of stuff going on, with the 8 car and 1 car and the Busch car," Hamlin said, "but he's got a lot of other people to take care of those other ventures. When we're at the track, you won't find another person as focused and intent as Dale Earnhardt."
This season, that has paid off, most apparently in three wins.
"Earnhardt's the best there is and that's why he wins races," said Jeff Gordon, who proved his mettle by holding Earnhardt off at Martinsville in the NAPA AutoCare 500. "He knows how to position himself, how to use air, how to use the other cars and knows where to be at the right time at the right place. If anybody's got an advantage, it's Earnhardt.
"I don't know how he does it. I watch him in awe. I try to learn as much from him as I can."
If Earnhardt has learned anything in his career it's a dogged, gritty determination that comes from hardly knowing where your next meal is coming from and having to race hard to put it on the table.
"You never give up on your race car and never give up on your race team," Earnhardt said. "You keep working and driving as hard as you can and it'll work out for you."
"You have your ups and downs in your career, and I've had 'em over the years," Earnhardt said. "'88 and '89 weren't good years for me. To have '96 and '97 droughts and '98 was a little bit of a tough year. We won Daytona in it, but to come back this year and the team is doing the right things and we're getting competitive to the point we can consistently run in the top-5 and top-10 (is big).
"If you do that you're going to win races. We've proved that. I felt like we should have won Martinsville. Circumstances change and you don't do it. We had a good car at Charlotte, we just over adjusted and started the race with a couple of things we shouldn't have done, but we just made a mistake there."
"The team, Kevin and I, are getting more in tune together with what we want and what we feel like the car needs and more comfortable for me to drive," he said. "I think we're doing a better and better job at it as we work together."
And that might only spell trouble for the competition in 2000.
Hamlin is another who thinks the combination of a hungry race team, a fired up driver and a new hot rod may be just what the GM Goodwrench Service Plus team needs
"We just finished the season and we're pretty happy with it," Hamlin said. "We're just trying to improve on a few things for next season. I think after some things we went through this year, and with the new 2000 Monte Carlo, we'll try awful hard for that eighth championship."