CONCORD, N.C. — For NASCAR stock car drivers, perhaps the most unnerving thing is knowing that Dale Earnhardt and his black No. 3 Chevrolet Lumina are behind them--and on the move.
For spectators at Winston Cup races, the sight is familiar--and predictable. No one else commands the respect, fear and admiration of the 42-year-old North Carolina driver when he is moving up through the field, heading for the lead.
As long as there is stock car racing, Richard Petty will be "the King." But no longer can he be called the sport's greatest driver.
Earnhardt, a second-generation driver from nearby Kannapolis, has moved into the No. 1 position, much as Jack Nicklaus became No. 1 in golf even while Arnold Palmer remained the people's choice in that sport.
Petty's driving style was to move high up on the banking at the superspeedways, then swoop around startled drivers on the rim of the track. Earnhardt's is marked more by sheer determination, a combination of talent and will power that enables him to pass high or low, sometimes with such abandon that it seems as if he almost drives right over other cars.
It's no wonder his rivals call him "the Intimidator."
When Earnhardt wins his sixth Winston Cup championship and its $1.25-million prize Sunday at Atlanta--he can hardly miss--he will be only one behind Petty's record seven. With the driver saying he expects to race until the year 2000, he and his Chevrolets, prepared by Richard Childress, figure to move onto a new level.
All Earnhardt needs to do to win the title Sunday is finish 34th or better--among 42 starters--no matter what happens to Rusty Wallace, his remaining challenger.
The last time Earnhardt finished that far back was in July of 1992 at Talladega, Ala., where engine failure dropped him to 40th.
"We feel pretty good about going down there (to Atlanta)," Earnhardt said. "It's still not in the bag, but hopefully we'll pull it out.
"Pressure? Hey, that's what it's all about. That's what a driver needs, what a team needs. If you can't respond to a challenge, you shouldn't be out in front. I think you've got to be under a little bit of pressure to perform at your best. I know I do better under pressure."
Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Harry Gant, Ernie Irvan and the rest of the Winston Cup regulars will attest to that.
This is the sixth time in the last seven years that Earnhardt and the Childress team have been in the hunt going to the final race, either leading or within striking distance of the leaders. Four of those times, 1986, 1987, 1990 and 1991, Earnhardt won the championship, adding to the 1980 title he won while driving for Rod Osterlund.
In 1989, he missed by only 12 points when Wallace won.
It took Petty 16 seasons to win seven titles. Presuming Earnhardt wins this year's, he will have six in 14 years.
Even so, this has been a topsy-turvy year for him. After winning six of the first 18 races, he led second-place Wallace by 309 points in August and was already being fitted for a tuxedo to wear when he collects the $1.25 million at the NASCAR awards banquet next month in New York.
Then Wallace began a torrid comeback, winning four of six races as Earnhardt suffered problems. The margin was cut to 72 points before the Phoenix race on Oct. 31. There, however, Wallace lost almost all hope when he finished 19th as Earnhardt was fourth. The margin jumped to 126.
"What chance have I got?" Wallace said, repeating the question. "Well, something could happen to him on the first lap (at Atlanta) and I could win the thing and still get the championship."
Despite his record and his hard-charging tactics, Earnhardt admits to being a bit of a fatalist.
"Every race, every track, every situation is different," he said. "You can prepare and do the same things that got you to this point and if things aren't meant to happen, they aren't going to happen. If they are, they are."
Childress, a former driver turned car owner, has the same outlook.
"There's pressure and then there isn't," he said. "I mean, you've got sponsors who pay and support you and expect a return on their investment. There's pressure to give them that. There are fans who expect a lot. And once you get to the position we're in, leading the points, there's pressure to hang on and win.
"But whatever happens is going to happen. All we can do is our best to try and make sure we put the best car out there for Dale to drive. From there, it's really out of our hands. We worked our butts off to have a good car for Dover (Del.) and we got caught up in a wreck. Nobody's fault, it just happened. We just hope it doesn't happen again.
"If we get beat, I mean outrun on the race track, we'll be disappointed. But that's something you've got to live with. You don't like being outrun, but if somebody does, they've earned it."
For years, Earnhardt looked as if he wore a perpetual scowl. Even in victory, his trademark mustache gave him a foreboding appearance. One approached him with caution, if not trepidation.