Countdown To New York: No 2

Dale Earnhardt is finished. He’s washed up. He doesn’t have what it takes any longer. He’s lost the desire that once drove him. Title No. 8 couldn’t be further away.

Remember all of those thoughts being thrown into stories by “respectable” journalists after the “Intimidator” finished out of the Top 5 in 1998 and 1999?

Well, the seven-time Winston Cup champion all but made those folks eat their words in 2000.

So how did this veteran of more than 20 full Winston Cup seasons make so many of the “know-it-alls” look so bad? How did he turn around what seemed to be a slide into a second-place finish in the points standings?

The answer is pretty simple. He didn’t change a thing.

Earnhardt – who will turn 50 early into next season – did what he’s always done. He ran as hard and smart as he could, won some races (two) and kept the famous Richard Childress-owned No. 3 towards the front of the field as much as possible.

No secret formula.

“Richard Childress and the guys did a good job this season,” Earnhardt says. “To come out second in points is really pretty neat, though I wish we could have kicked it up one more notch.

“We're going to try to capitalize more on our opportunities next year and not have the bad races we had this year. (Crew chief) Kevin Hamlin and I have things headed in the right direction for next season.”

So Earnhardt doesn’t think 2000 will be his last shot at a record-breaking eighth title?

“To think that this year was the only opportunity I'm going to have to win that eighth championship, I don't,” Earnhardt says. “I feel like I've got several opportunities, next year and the year after.

“I really feel bad about running so bad at Rockingham and Homestead at the end of the year. We should have been better at those tracks, and we also fell way back at Charlotte. If we could have capitalized on some of those races, we would have been better off.

“We just didn't hit the mark. You've got to put those races together when it counts and we didn't do that.”

The prior two years, Earnhardt’s critics were all too eager to shout that he could no longer compete with the likes of a Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett or this year’s champion Bobby Labonte. While Earnhardt knows his years of racing for championships are numbered, he knows he’s not over the hill just yet.

“The day I can’t run up front and be competitive, that’s the day I’m going to have to look at getting out of the car,” Earnhardt says. “It will be a situation where I step out of the car before I get to that point, though. I don’t want to be around and in the way. I want to be competitive and winning races. I want to be up front.”

While Earnhardt won only twice, he did so in two of the most exciting races of the year. He first nipped Labonte at Atlanta in the spring, and followed that up with a mind-boggling run from deep in the field to win the fall race at Talladega.

“I just couldn’t believe that one,” Earnhardt says of his Talladega win, a victory many believe was one of the greatest rallies in NASCAR history.

Perhaps more than anything in 2000, Earnhardt showed that when he does retire from the sport, he’ll still be around as a team owner through his Dale Earnhardt Inc. empire with drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park (who combined to win three races and The Winston). Next year, DEI will have a third Winston Cup team, with Michael Waltrip driving.

“All of our race teams at DEI have done well,” Earnhardt says. “We've been more competitive, and Park did a great job this year. Dale Jr. came out of the box pretty hot and competitive and put some pressure on the No. 1 car. The No. 1 car had a tough first part of the year, but as they went along they got better and they turned their season around very nicely. They won a race, ran competitively and sat on the pole, things like that. I'm proud of our race teams.

“To be a competitive driver and win races in Winston Cup, and look around at your team and everybody in the team has won races, that’s quite an accomplishment.”

Some said it was the brilliant start for Earnhardt Jr. that prompted Dad to kick it in gear a little more. The elder Earnhardt says bull.

“He was another racer on the track,” Earnhardt says. “I can’t let him make a difference in what I’m doing on the track whether it’s win, lose or draw. Everybody says he made Earnhardt more competitive. No.”

Well, we all now know that isn’t the first time the “experts” have been wrong about Earnhardt.

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