The 2000 season is going to be filled with storylines surrounding a driver named Dale Earnhardt. But, before "Junior" steps into the Winston Cup spotlight, a certain seven-time Winston Cup champion wants to assure his legions of fans that "Senior" isn't finished making headlines.
Until a run of success over the second half of the '99 Winston Cup season brought two of his three wins last year, the whispers could be heard along pit road that maybe the father would be replaced by his son when it came to which Earnhardt to be aware of on the track in 2000. But that talk ceased following a race in Bristol, Tenn., when the "Intimidator" served notice his No. 3 Chevrolet would not fade quietly into the night.
Earnhardt (tapped, bumped, shoved ... fill in your own verb here) Terry Labonte out of the way to win the Goody's 500 under the Bristol lights. But in effect, he was also shoving his way back into Winston Cup's competitive picture. Sure, he'd already broken a two-plus year victory drought at Talladega, but that was just the restrictor-plate master doing what he does best on a superspeedway. His win at Bristol was the statement Earnhardt needed to make as the 21st Century approached.
"We're going to win that eighth championship, that's our No. 1 goal right now," team owner Richard Childress said during the final months of the 1999 season. "Dale Earnhardt can still do it. Anyone who ever doubted it made a big mistake."
Cause and effect can best sum up Earnhardt's 1999 season.
His Bristol win was sandwiched by two Talladega triumphs, giving him more checkered flags in 1999 than any season since 1995 when he won five times and finished second to Jeff Gordon in the points race.
But he finished seventh in points -- just a spot better than eighth in '98, which was his lowest finish in the standings since winding up 12th in 1992.
However, his final spot in the standings was facilitated by a slow start to the season that saw him as low as 20th in points after five races and still outside the top 10 in May.
Earnhardt shouldn't endure a similar start to the 2000 season for one very good reason: He has a new 2000 Monte Carlo.
It was work on that 2000 Monte Carlo that landed the No. 3 behind the learning curve in 1999.
That headstart should make Earnhardt ahead of other Chevy teams' development curve by the time the green flag drops at Daytona.
"We're looking really good for 2000," Earnhardt said. "After our preliminary tests at Homestead and Talladega with the 2000 Monte Carlo, things are coming together well. So, I feel good about the new car. I think all the Chevy drivers feel good about it.
"1999 was a pretty good turnaround for us -- winning three races. And we felt we could win a few more. It was a pretty good year all-in-all. I'm looking forward to the year 2000 when I think we can even do better."
Funny how a few wins can change the perception of a race team -- even with a legend behind the wheel. Earnhardt isn't among the favorites to win his eighth Cup in 2000, but those who are mentioned as the drivers to watch say keeping an eye on the 49-year-old isn't a bad idea.
1999 In Review
Wins: 3 (Bristol, Talladega twice)
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 21
What Went Right?
Plenty over the second half of the season when the black No. 3 seemed to be on the move every week. Earnhardt's three wins in '99 were the most since he won five times in 1995. After making headlines with his winning "Bristol Bump," the Intimidator posted eight top-10 finishes over the final 14 races -- winning his second race at Talladega and finishing outside the top 15 just once.
What Went Wrong?
The team found itself behind the learning curve with its '99 cars when Chevrolet and NASCAR didn't agree on the new Monte Carlo and Earnhardt was forced to scramble to make the '98 cars competitive in 1999. Didn't win a pole in '99, which means he won't be in the Bud Shootout come Daytona. A second straight Daytona 500 also would have been nice, but a certain Rainbow No. 24 wouldn't give him No. 2.
-- Ron Buck
"I don't think he's ready to retire. I'm not recommending that he retire. I'd love to see him retire so I don't have to worry about trying to race him every week and beat him every week," said rookie of the year Tony Stewart. "It's hard for me to say what he was like five years ago, or 10 years ago. But I had some great races with him last year. There were days where I was giving 100 percent in the car, and sweating and losing weight in the car. And you know he's just sitting over there smiling at ya because it's easy for him.
"I don't think he's ready to retire."
Whether it's winning the first three IROC races of the season en route to his third IROC championship, finishing second at Daytona to start the season, or finishing with eight top 10s in the final 14 races of 1999, Earnhardt proved that with an equal, or just a competitive car under him, he can run up front.
He and his crew chief Kevin Hamlin enter their second full season together. The pair seemed to be working on the same page toward the end of last season, which could mean a new chapter of success in 2000.
"We really started to turn the corner in May. I felt like from May on we started pulling together and the team overcame a lot of adversities," Earnhardt said. "When you can rebound, it feels good and it feels like you can compete for championships again. Like Dale Jarrett was able to do.
"You have your ups and downs in your career, and I've had them over the years. To come back this year and (see) the team doing the right things, we were able to get competitive to the point we can consistently run in the top five and top 10. If you do that you are going to win races."
Earnhardt enters 2000 with 74 career wins -- nine behind Cale Yarborough, who is fifth all-time in career Winston Cup wins. A glimpse into Earnhardt's 2000 season, however, wouldn't be complete without at least a mention of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The prodigal son arrives on the Winston Cup scene full-time next year as the third car in the Dale Earnhardt Inc., garage. For the record, the duo met five times on the track in 1999 with father finishing ahead of son on each occasion.
"I just hope he can be consistent and learn as well as he did while in Busch Grand National," Earnhardt said. "He just got on line and jumped into that Busch car and won a lot of races. We were surprised. I didn't know he was paying that good of
attention growing up racing those late-model stock cars. He just got right into that Busch car, and 'boom' he was a success."
What About 2000?
|"1999 was a pretty good turnaround for us -- winning three races. And we felt we could win a few more. It was a pretty good year all-in-all. I'm looking forward to the year 2000 when I think we can even do better."
-- Dale Earnhardt
But exactly which Dale Earnhardt will bring the eighth Winston Cup to the team's garage? Based on Junior's two years of Busch Series success, and Senior's second-half surge this past season, only the first few years of the 21st Century can provide the answer.
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Dale Earnhardt won seven Winston Cup titles and the '98 Daytona 500. RPM 2Night puts the Intimidator at No. 4 among drivers of the 20th Century.
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