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Earnhardt Still Chasing 500 Dream Daytona Track Has Yielded Everything But Top Prize

Dale Earnhardt has been at the top of stock car racing so long that, like gravity, he has no place to go but down.

Few people know that fear.

If it’s creeping up on Earnhardt, at 45, he’s not admitting it.

“If I get too old to climb in the car, it might be a concern,” Earnhardt says. “Right now, it’s not.”

But as he closes in on retirement, which he insists is still four or five years off, the question facing racing’s most notorious bully is one of dignity and grace.

Does he keep driving until he is just making laps? Or will he exit on top of his game, his pride intact?

If 1996 offers any clue, Earnhardt won’t go gently. And when he goes, part of stock car racing’s soul will go with him.

Until then, Earnhardt’s unfinished business resumes Sunday with the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most important race, which he has yet to win in 18 attempts. He’s had no trouble with other events at Daytona. On Thursday, he won his eighth consecutive 125-mile qualifying race, bringing his career victories at the track to 29.

Even more than his first Daytona 500, he says, he wants to win an eighth NASCAR Winston Cup championship, which would move him past his tie with Richard Petty. A ninth or 10th title, he points out, would be even tougher for Jeff Gordon and the next generation of racers to match.

Earnhardt is not the same driver he was when he started racing full time in 1979, any more than he is the same man.

He is a grandfather twice over, graying around the temples, 15-20 pounds heavier and stronger than last season. On track and off, he is more calculating in his moves. And he has learned he is fallible - mortal, even, after a July wreck at Talladega, Ala., that could have killed him.

“Getting hurt is not something race car drivers think about,” says Kirk Shelmerdine, Earnhardt’s crew chief from 1980-1992. “It’s something you put off in your mind, like retirement. But when it’s right in your face, it gives you instant insight into what that would be like.”

The Saturday after the wreck, which broke his sternum and collarbone, Earnhardt’s voice cracked with emotion as he climbed from his race car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway so relief driver Mike Skinner could take over.

After qualifying on the pole at Watkins Glen, N.Y., the next week, he refused to get out of the car and finished the 2-hour, 23-minute road course race in sixth place.

“(It was) a stupid mistake on my part,” he admits now. “It was the hero thing to do when I was driving it, but it probably set me back two or three races, or a lot more than that, really.”

It is a rare confessional from racing’s “Intimidator.”

Earnhardt grew up in a mill town, Kannapolis, N.C., quit school after the eighth grade and was a husband and father at 18, watching the world drive past while he pumped gas for a living. His daddy’s love, stock car racing, became his ticket out.

Ralph Earnhardt raced North Carolina’s short tracks but died before his son Dale found any success at the game. The son races all the harder for it today, as if Ralph Earnhardt were watching from heaven.

Nearly every NASCAR driver has tangled with Dale Earnhardt on the track. “The Intimidator” typically sails past unscathed while they spin out or smack the wall. But nearly to a man, his fellow racers say his ability is without peer.

“There is never, ever gonna be anybody as good as Earnhardt,” says Bobby Hamilton, whose wreck with Earnhardt at Rockingham, N.C., last season probably cost him the victory. Earnhardt went on to win.

“Nobody knows the actual tools it takes to drive a race car,” Hamilton adds, “but there’s just something about him.”

Among fans, Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevy Monte Carlo has as polarizing an effect as the man himself. Black and white, it plays Good or Evil, depending on their loyalty, each Sunday in NASCAR’s weekly morality play. The No. 3 car zooms past, and half the grandstand thrusts three fingers in the air in tribute. The other half extends just one.

Stock car racing has made Earnhardt a millionaire many times over. His 70 Winston Cup victories and seven championships have produced $28.2 million in earnings.

Money apparently hasn’t dulled his drive on the track any more than age.

“Earnhardt’s the type of guy that has to be the first one through the door,” Shelmerdine says. “He has to beat you back to the hotel. If he’s not the biggest dog in the yard, he’s going after who is. That kind of thing is not something you acquire.”

Says Hamilton: “If he had to race for nothin’ - if he had to PAY $5 to race, if he had the $5, he’d put his last $5 in it to race. He loves the sport that much. There isn’t a lot of people around like that any more.”

Entering the 1997 season, Earnhardt says his determination to win is as strong or stronger than ever. He has been building bulk and strength in his upper body at the suggestion of his new crew chief, Larry McReynolds, who was hired away from Robert Yates’ Racing in November. Already, both say the chemistry clicks.

Earnhardt will have a teammate for the first time this season. The decision was made by car owner Richard Childress, who finally concluded Earnhardt needed a drafting partner if he were ever going to win the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt has never liked the idea of a two-car race team, but publicly has supported Childress’ decision. He also has been complimentary of Skinner, the man Childress hired to drive his new No. 31 car.

Skinner will start Sunday’s Daytona 500 from the pole, having qualified with a fast lap of 189.813 mph. Earnhardt, the polesitter in 1996, will start 10th.

“I don’t really look at him as a teammate,” Earnhardt says. “If we can help each other in a race as far as the drafting goes, it’ll be great. If it comes down to winning, I’m probably going to bend the fenders on that (No.) 31 just like I would on any other car to get to the front.”

Earnhardt hasn’t had much trouble getting to the front at Daytona; his problem has been staying there. He has finished second in the race four times, three times in the last four years alone.

In 1986, he ran out of gas on the last lap. In 1990, after leading 155 of the race’s 200 laps, he cut a tire on the backstretch during the final lap. In 1992, while running third, he hit a seagull, which damaged his radiator.

Says Childress: “The tire deal was the biggest disappointment, but the hardest to accept was when we ran out of gas. We had the dominant car, and it was in our control and we made a mistake. That’s the one that’s hard for me to get out of my mind. We couldn’t control cutting a tire, but we could control our gas stop. We should have pitted.”

Earnhardt admits winning the Daytona 500 would do his heart good. “But it’s not the end of my life and my career if I never do,” he says. “If I retire tomorrow and don’t win the Daytona 500, I’m not going to have a bad feeling when I think about how many championships I’ve won.”

Unser establishes IROC record

One of Al Unser Jr.’s ambitions is to win the Daytona 500 and Friday he showed he knows how to drive a stock car on the 31-degree banking at Daytona International Speedway.

Although he started last in the field of 12, he won the opening event of the 21st International Race of Champions in a Pontiac TransAm, holding off Winston Cup veterans Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin in a 100-mile adventure.

The victory was Unser’s 11th in IROC, a record.