TALLADEGA, Ala. — "The thing about Dale is, he just can't stand having anyone ahead of him, at any time."
Richard Childress, the Good Ol' Boy car owner who runs Dale Earnhardt's racing team, was talking about his Good Ol' Boy driver. No one knows the NASCAR champion any better.
The way Earnhardt has been running this year, it's a statement that seems redundant.
Earnhardt has won 6 of the 8 Winston Cup races, including the last 4.
No one, not Richard Petty nor Fireball Roberts nor Cale Yarborough nor Darrell Waltrip, has ever had such a start in the 38 years since Bill France made stock car racing into a major sport.
Petty won four of the first seven in 1975, the best before Earnhardt won the Mr. Goodwrench 500 at Rockingham, N.C., the Miller 400 at Richmond, Va., the TransSouth 500 at Darlington, S.C., the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro, N.C., the Valleydale 500 at Bristol, Tenn., and the Sovran Bank 500 at Martinsville, Va.
Earnhardt leads Bill Elliott, the Daytona 500 winner, 1,390 to 1,233, in quest of his third national championship. Back in 1980, in only his second year on the circuit, Earnhardt won his first.
And but for a $12 alternator wire that broke at Atlanta late in the 500-mile race, Earnhardt might have won seven in a row. Before he dropped out of contention with 75 miles remaining, Earnhardt had lapped all but 11 of the 42 starters.
"Is that what Richard said, that I couldn't stand anyone ahead of me?" Dale repeated, mischievously tugging on a scraggly mustache that gives him the look of a bushwhacker. "If that's what he says, I can't argue with my boss now, can I?"
Most drivers would claim similar thoughts, but few carry them to the extreme that Earnhardt does.
If he finds someone ahead of him, and Earnhardt figures he belongs in front, he'll think nothing to giving the offender--in his mind--a little nudge. Or, if that isn't enough, a hard nudge.
This philosophy can lead to many things--some good, some bad.
For one, it can create crashes, such as the one a year ago when Earnhardt nudged Waltrip three laps from the finish at Richmond. Before cars stopped spinning and crashing, Earnhardt, Waltrip and four others were wrecked.
This year, Earnhardt's most conspicuous nudge worked out the way he'd like them all to work. Coming up behind race leader Sterling Marlin midway through the Bristol race, Earnhardt tapped Marlin's Olds, sending it spinning into the wall. Earnhardt, with a clear track, cruised on to win.
That incident earned Earnhardt a chorus of boos from Tennessee fans, a dressing down from NASCAR competition director Dick Beaty and a scathing comment from old-time driver Coo Coo Marlin, Sterling's father.
Beaty said he, Earnhardt and Childress "came to an understanding" about the rough driving, but that no action was taken.
"There's a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness and I don't think Earnhardt has crossed it yet," Beaty said.
Coo Coo said if he were still driving, he would know how to handle it, that he would take Dale "out behind the barn."
Earnhardt did admit he was wrong in whacking Marlin, but he still relishes his reputation.
"The fans need a bad guy to yell at," he said. "You don't want every guy to be a good guy, do you? That would be pretty boring, if you ask me.
"I'd never hit anybody with the idea of wrecking him, but I'll rub a few fenders. That's what racing's all about.
"I grew up watching my daddy rub fenders with Junior Johnson and LeeRoy Yarbrough and Tiny Lund and guys like that. Ain't no way you can run on a short track and not wham and bang if you're gonna win anything."
Dale's father, Ralph, raced 23 years on short tracks and was the national late model sportsman champion in 1956. He died in 1973 of a heart attack at age 45.
"Short track racing taught me to ask no quarter and give none," Earnhardt said. "If you don't win, you lose. It's as simple as that. And I'm not here to lose."
But today, in the $625,170 Winston 500, on the longest, fastest stock car racing track in the world, Alabama International Motor Speedway, there is no place for rubbing fenders. Not on a 2.66-mile track where Elliott's Ford Thunderbird averaged a NASCAR record 212.809 m.p.h. during qualifying.
"Racing at Talladega is like those fighter plane scenes in 'Top Gun,' " said Bobby Allison, last year's winner. "You don't need a racing uniform here, you need a flight suit.
"A Boeing 727 and Winston Cup cars have a lot in common. Both want to take off at the speeds we drive at Talladega. The problem with the race car is getting it to go that fast and still stay on the ground."
Talladega, the drivers say, is a track where you mash the throttle all the way around the huge tri-oval, and what you get is what the engine builder gives you.
Earnhardt knows how to drive the superspeedways, too, however. He has won twice here, in the 1983 and 1984 Talladega 500s in July, and he was second to Allison in last year's Winston 500.