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Behind The 8-Ball Drivers Take Back Seat To Earnhardt’s Quest For Eighth Title

To paraphrase a song from the holiday season, it’s beginning to look a lot like Earnhardt.

When Winston Cup racing’s migratory flock seeks the warmer climes of Daytona Beach, Fla., this week, the first question from the lips of anyone who follows stock car racing’s premier circuit is, “Can anybody stop No. 3?”

In his 17 years as a full-time driver, Dale Earnhardt has won the Winston Cup championship seven times, tying him with the legendary Richard Petty. Along the way, he has earned adulation - and animosity - on both sides of the fence.

Whether it’s “good ol’ Dale” or “that darn Earnhardt,” the champion from Kannapolis, N.C., is clearly the center of the fans’ and competitors’ attention come Daytona 500 time.

“Our focus at Childress Racing is to go out and win that eighth championship,” Earnhardt says. “Our focus is to win races and win that championship. That’s something we do every year.”

But though Earnhardt is the constant in any racing season, his is not the only story out there.

Last season, 1984 champion Rusty Wallace was a couple of crashes away from winning the championship himself. His eight victories in 1994 exceeded Earnhardt by four and - but for disastrous wrecks and terrible luck at Daytona and Talladega - he could have challenged Earnhardt at the end of the season. Can he do it this time?

Or will it be Mark Martin’s turn? Twice the bridesmaid to Earnhardt for the title, Martin has proven that his Roush Racing team is championshipcaliber. Will he be able to muster that little extra in 1995?

How about Robert Yates’ team? Yates has been visited by more tragedy than anyone in racing, but seems to keep bouncing back. When Davey Allison’s trek to stardom was halted by his untimely death in a helicopter accident in 1993, Ernie Irvan picked up the team’s banner and carried it well until he was sidelined by a crash last August.

This year, Dale Jarrett has moved into the cockpit of the No. 28 Thunderbird for a season to allow Irvan time to recover, and Jarrett does not mince words. This is his best shot at a championship in his seven seasons as a fulltime driver, and he wants a championship.

Or will the 1995 Winston Cup champion be a dark horse? Ricky Rudd astounded the racing world last year when he finished fifth in the points standing in his first season as a driver/car owner.

Geoff Bodine, who bought the late Alan Kulwicki’s championship team in 1993, proved his mettle with three victories and five pole positions last year.

All three of car owner Rick Hendrick’s drivers - Ken Schrader, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon - finished in the top 10 in 1994. Will one of those rise to the top in 1995?

Will Bill Elliott’s move back to his family team in Dawsonville, Ga., light a spark like the one that carried him to the 1988 title?

Or will it be a team from out of nowhere?

The battle for the title, however, no matter how hotly contested, only scratches the surface.

Veteran driver Sterling Marlin waited a long time - 279 races - before his first victory, but he made it the biggest: the 1994 Daytona 500. Gordon validated Hendrick’s spending a fortune to get him by winning two races last year, the CocaCola 600 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Bad-boy Jimmy Spencer also showed that he was a winner, taking two checkered flags.

Will there be another first-time winner in 1995? Michael Waltrip, with 268 winless starts, is the most overdue, but there are a number of winless drivers with realistic shots at victory lane.

Jeff Burton, who beat out brother Ward and a host of talented drivers for the rookie of the year title, had two fourth-place finishes in 1994. In the offseason, rookie runner-up Steve Grissom’s team hired one of the most talented crew chiefs/team managers in the business, Buddy Parrott. Will he make a difference? Will those two drivers become first-time winners in their sophomore seasons?

What about the rookie class? Most years, the majority of new faces come up from NASCAR’s “triple-A” level Busch Grand National series. This year’s class is the most cosmopolitan.

Steve Kinser, a legendary 14-time champion on the World of Outlaws sprint car circuit, has moved over to Winston Cup. Road racer Davy Jones will be starting in his first Winston Cup race. Defending Winston West champ Mike Chase, Gary Bradberry from the ARCA ranks, and former Busch North series champs Ricky Craven and Randy LaJoie will all be running for the rookie title. Even a bloke from Australia, Terry Byers, is having a go.

The Busch series is still wellrepresented, however. Craven has finished second twice in the points and Robert Pressley comes into Winston Cup with 10 Busch victories.

Chevrolet will “re-debut” its Monte Carlo model, the winningest nameplate in racing, in 1995. Will it become the dominant car it once was?One factor that may not get many

headlines - but may determine the outcome of some races - is that there’s no Tire War in 1995.

When rival Hoosier Tire pulled out of Winston Cup after the final race of the 1994 season, it left the field to Goodyear. To that, most drivers say good riddance - but, thanks.

“To me, it puts the team back into it,” says Rudd, who tested Goodyears at Darlington last week. “If you qualify 21st, it’s not because somebody had on those soft Hoosiers. You just got beat.

“But,” he adds, “I think it’s a fair statement to say that Hoosier got Goodyear on the ball. If anyone learned a lesson, Goodyear learned not to sit on what they’ve got.”

 
Tags: auto racing

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