Earnhardt: Man In Black Is Back

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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Dale Earnhardt won't admit that he's obsessed with winning a record eighth NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

But then that's what Dale Earnhardt is all about -- winning races and championships. Nothing else in racing matters to The Intimidator.

The only problem is, it's been quite a while since that last title -- almost six years. In that time, Earnhardt watched a kid named Jeff Gordon and a pair of crafty veterans named Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett climb their way up to the pinnacle of stock car racing, a place once reserved only for The Man in Black.

That hasn't set well with the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet, arguably the most recognized car in Winston Cup. Not well at all.

Many began to question -- coming up quickly on his 50th birthday -- whether or
not Earnhardt could still run up front.

He still can.

The past couple of years Earnhardt has regained his old form, and although he hasn't been a consistent winner, he has made himself a championship contender again. Heading into Sunday's Kmart 400 at Michigan Speedway, Earnhardt is third in the Winston Cup point standings behind Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton and just 98 points out of first.

Earnhardt has more top-10 finishes (10) than any other driver and has finished in the top 10 six out of the past seven races.

"It's been a pretty good year for us so far," said Earnhardt, who won the Cracker Barrel 500 earlier this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "The guys have been working awfully hard, and we've got good race cars.

"If we can just keep doing what we're doing, we've got an opportunity to race for that championship. That makes you feel good. If you can race and be competitive and have a chance to win races and championships, well, that's what I'm all about."

After winning his last title in 1994, tying him with Richard Petty for the record, Earnhardt won five races and narrowly missed championship No. 8 when he finished second to Gordon in 1995. The next two years he slipped to fourth and fifth in the standings, winning only twice during that time.

At one point, however, he went 60 races without making it to victory lane and nearly slipped into the abyss of Winston Cup racing, leaving his fans to wonder if their hero was reaching the end of his storied career.

Those thoughts quickly came to an abrupt halt when he won the 1998 Daytona 500, then followed that with two more victories that season and an eighth-place finish in the championship standings.

"I don't know where I was at (in 1996 and 1997)," Earnhardt said. "Everybody talked about me being gone or whatever. I don't think I was gone, just maybe in hiding or something.

"I just kept working and the guys kept working, and we didn't give up on each other. Here we are now winning races again and being competitive to win races. If we weren't doing that, then there's no telling what I might be feeling right now."

Along with Earnhardt's rebirth has come the emergence of his son, Dale Jr., as a bona fide Winston Cup superstar. The rookie driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has done his father proud by winning a pair of points races at Texas and Richmond, as well as the coveted The Winston at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

All is definitely well at Dale Earnhardt Inc. these days.

Ironically, Michigan marks the second anniversary of Earnhardt's pairing with crew chief Kevin Hamlin. The duo of Earnhardt and previous crew chief Larry McReynolds struggled to find the right combination, and team owner Richard Childress decided to switch his crew chiefs and put Hamlin, who was working with driver Mike Skinner on the No. 31 Chevrolet, together with Earnhardt.

He certainly hasn't regretted the decision since. Skinner and McReynolds have also turned their performance up a notch or two this season and have made themselves contenders to win races every week.

"I think they've (Earnhardt and Hamlin) turned into a pretty good combination," Childress said. "We've been working hard and putting everything together that we need to win that eighth championship. I think if the rules stay the same and we don't shoot ourselves in the foot, then we've got a good chance to contend for the title this year.

"Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton have been very consistent so far, and it's too early to count anybody out yet. I'd say anybody within 500 points of the lead right now has a chance to win. We came into Charlotte one year more than 200 points out of the lead and we won it.

"It's too early to say who you've got to beat. Jeff Gordon and his team will get things worked out and they'll be tough. He's always good at Michigan, and that's what we're really concentrating on right now, the next race."

Earnhardt is a two-time winner at Michigan Speedway, but hasn't visited victory lane there since 1990.

"I think we're going to have two good cars at Michigan," Childress said. "We're working on some new stuff for the second half of the season, and hopefully, we're going to keep getting better. Kevin and Dale have turned into a great combination.

"Kevin is a laid back crew chief, and that's what Dale is used to. When Kevin worked with Mike, I could see some of the things in Kevin that Dale needed. Larry McReynolds had many qualities that Mike Skinner needed, so it's worked out well for both teams."

Childress has won six championships with Earnhardt since the two got together in 1984. At almost the halfway point of the 2000 campaign, he believes Earnhardt could be the man to beat down the stretch.

"The 3 team is just 98 points behind (leader Labonte) right now, but you're never satisfied when you're behind," Childress said. "If we were 98 points ahead, we wouldn't be satisfied. You're never satisfied until it's all over and you've won it.

"We lost a lot of points at Bristol (39th-place finish). A lot of teams have lost a lot at different tracks this season. If NASCAR doesn't go messing with the rules, I think we'll be in good shape for the championship."

If Earnhardt is anywhere near the top of the standings in the final month of the season, you won't find many betting against his chances.

"If we're right there, then I'll guarantee you this team is going to do everything it takes to win that championship," Earnhardt said. "We're focused right now, but I guarantee we'll be very focused on what we're doing. We want to get that eighth one, and I know the guys on my team are hungry to get it.

"We'll see what happens then."

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