When the season began in Daytona, Dale Earnhardt was the sentimental
favorite to win a record eighth Winston Cup championship. After all, the closest Earnhardt had come to winning No. 8 was back in 1995, when he lost to that young Gordon kid who made his way to NASCAR from California after a stop in Indiana.
We all know, however, there is a big difference between sentimental favorite and an actual championship favorite. But Earnhardt is proving to be both in 2000.
Earnhardt is a prime example of a driver who races today, but is a
throwback to the old days. He is one of the last links to my favorite period
of racing, the '70s and early '80s.
Why does he remind me of that time period? I don't know. As a kid, guys like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and Benny Parsons seemed to walk on water. They were larger than life.
Granted being a kid at about 4-foot whatever, they were all literally larger than life. It's like going back to your old elementary school and thinking, "Man those desks never looked that small." Or entering the gym, which seems so much smaller for some reason. Or, well you get the picture.
Even to this day, when "The King" strolls through the garage, he has that
air of someone who could talk the talk, and walk the walk. A living legend.
Todd Parrott and I were talking earlier this season and "The King" walked by. We both looked at each and said at the same time, "He's still the King."
It's an air of greatness. The sense of someone special who only comes along once in a lifetime. A person who has extraordinary talent on the racetrack and an even greater person off.
Earnhardt has that same air about him. He is a walking legend who still performs for his fans. It seems only fitting that one of Earnhardt's nicknames is "The Man in Black."
While "The King" always wore the white hat and carried the sport through the tough times, Earnhardt has thrived on the super tough image and helped bring it to
a new level. He is one who intimidates the competition with his talent,
nerve, and never-ending desire to win. A guy who likes to rub fenders with
drivers just to see if they have the nerve to rub back.
Earnhardt and The King have been tied at seven Winston Cup championships for five years. But 2000 might be the best chance since 1995 for Earnhardt to take sole ownership of the most championships for a Winston Cup driver.
While Little Dale has garnered most of the headlines this season, the Big E has quietly put himself in position to make a run for the title. To understand how
Earnhardt has become a bonafide title contender again, you have to understand
where he has come from.
|Dale Earnhardt's return to the top can be traced to "The Swap" two years ago in Michigan.|
Earnhardt's road back to being a contender goes back to a move made 66 races ago by car owner Richard Childress. He swapped Earnhardt's and Mike Skinner's crew chiefs going into Michigan. Childress moved Larry McReynolds, who finally gave Earnhardt his prized Daytona 500 victory just four months earlier in Febuary, to the upstart 31 team with Rookie of the Year winner Mike Skinner. Kevin Hamlin, meanwhile, was given the keys to the black No. 3 -- along with the pressure of turning it into a contender again.
Huge sponsorship dollars can buy parts and
sheetmetal, but it's people that make the difference in racing. You wouldn't
recognize to many faces on the 3 team if you looked at a picture from
1994 to this season. People are what make the difference. Both teams had
potential and quality personel. The chemestry, however, for each wasn't exactly right. Since the first race on June 14, 1998, under the changed leadership, "the
swap" has proven productive for both teams.
Getting to know Hamlin
The No. 3 team under Hamlin's guidance has won four races, scored 18 top-five finishes and 40 top-10s in those 66 races. And along the way, Michigan-native Hamlin has helped Earnhardt regain his past championship prowess. The two have a relationship very similar to the one Earnhardt had with Kirk Shelmerdine. "We have a good understanding
of each other," says Earnhardt. "We have come a long way and it has been a team effort. If I am thinking about going one way with the car, he's thinking
that same direction. You don't always have that and some teams never ever
get it. I honestly don't believe we've reached our potential."
Two years later
Sunday's Kmart 400 marks the two-year anniversay of "The Swap." The 3 team enters Michigan ready to make a push toward the Cup. The GM Goodwrench team has entered the top-three in points, familiar territory for Earnhardt. In four seasons beginning from 1993 until the end of the 1996 season, Dale fell out of the top-five in points only once in 124 races. Still, even though Earnhardt has moved into position, he feels like winning races and being competitive will decide the title fight. "We aren't looking at the
points that much," says Earnhardt. "You look at it race by race and win by
win. If your competitive week in and week out then the points will come. As
we start to approach the halfway mark of the season, then the points will
become an issue. Right now I just want to win."
The Big E is one of 12 different winners in 2000. He edged Bobby
Labonte at Atlanta in one of NASCAR's closest finishes ever. He's finished outside the top 10 just three times and despite an average starting spot of 19.8, he's averaging a finish of 9.9.
The Man in Black rides into the Irish Hills of Michigan, a place where he has scored two of his 75 career victories. The 3 car could have won last August at Michigan. Earnhardt led 27 laps before giving way to eventual winner Bobby Labonte. Earnhardt's last victory at Michigan was in June of 1990. Sunday, a victory at Michigan would be No. 3 at Michigan for No. 3.
Life is all about opportunity and luck. I believe in Roger Penske's definition. "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." The 3 team started its turnaround under McReynolds, who prepared Earnhardt to be a champion again. Opportunity came two years go for Hamlin, and could complete the 3's turnaround in November.
Weber: Welcome back DJ
Dunlap: Pontiac may be on top, but it still was behind