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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Earnhardt's Goal Is Now Personal

February 20, 1998|SHAV GLICK

After you've won the Daytona 500 in your 20th attempt, to go with the seven Winston Cup championships, 71 wins and $32 million in race earnings, what goals remain--other than an eighth championship?

"I'd like to be racing against Dale Jr. in the Winston Cup," Dale Earnhardt said during a quick visit to Los Angeles between his Daytona victory and Sunday's Goodwrench 400 at Rockingham, N.C. "He ought to be ready in another year or two.

"Looking back [to 1988], when Bobby and Davey Allison finished one-two in the Daytona 500, I think that was pretty impressive. If he [Dale Jr.] keeps doing his thing, keeps improving, we could be there together."

Junior gave his dad and Teresa, his mother and car owner, an anxious moment last Saturday when his car flipped upside down during the Busch Grand National race.

"He woke up the next day with a little headache, he had a slight concussion but nothing that will keep him out of this Saturday's race at Rockingham. Those are the sort of things that can happen to you. Dick Trickle just got bumped into him and the next thing he knew he was upside down.

"You know, that's not the first time we've seen him on his head. The first time I saw him race a go-kart, Teresa and I took him down to Sanford [N.C.]. He started on the outside of the third or fourth row and he came off [turn] two on the outside of the second-place guy. He didn't know Junior was out there and when he clipped his wheel, Dale Jr. went up in the air tumbling just like he did at Daytona.

"Saturday, right after he flipped over, the first thing Teresa said was, 'Do you remember the first time we watched him drive a go-kart?' Well, it was about the same difference as his first race at Daytona.

"He's no different than anyone else, he's got to pay his dues. He's been around racing all his life. He knows what can happen. I grew up around racing with my dad, just the way he's grown up around me. All I wanted to do was race. All I cared about was working on race cars and driving race cars.

"He's that way too. He's young [23], energetic and he's pretty focused on being a winner."

The same could be said of Dale Sr., except that the Intimidator is 46.

"I'm still me," he said. "I hope I get better every day of my life. If I don't, [car owner] Richard Childress is going to go looking for someone else. Maybe Dale Jr."

Dale and Teresa have been on a whirlwind trip since Sunday's dramatic win in what may have been the greatest, most competitive, stock car race run.

On Monday, after delivering the winning No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo to Daytona USA, where it will be on display for a year, NASCAR flew the Earnhardts to New York in the company jet to appear on David Letterman's show.

After a night at the Waldorf, they flew to Los Angeles, where Dale did a cameo role in the movie "BASEketball," in which he plays a cab driver who responds to a youngster's challenge, "Can't you drive any faster than this?"

He also presented his driving uniform to Planet Hollywood, where it will be displayed along with such popular items as the charioteer's costume worn by Charlton Heston in "Ben Hur," the dress worn by Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz," and the army uniform worn by Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump."

When the Earnhardts finally returned home late Wednesday night--actually early Thursday morning--they were greeted by a surprise party at their home in Mooresville, N.C., thrown by his family.

Other than the sheer joy of winning stock car racing's Super Bowl, Earnhardt said his two most lasting memories are of seeing all the crew chiefs and crews of his rival drivers lined up along pit row to offer congratulations, and of a tiny girl in a wheelchair who gave him a lucky penny the day before the race.

"Saturday, in the final practice, we broke a push rod and Larry [crew chief McReynolds] and the guys fixed it, but I was feeling a little depressed when I got out of the car. I walked over to the NASCAR office, where I'd agreed to meet some Make-A-Wish kids, and there were five Earnhardt fans.

"One tiny girl in a wheelchair had the prettiest smile you ever saw, with a big No. 3 on her shirt. I leaned over to talk to her and she told me, 'Here's a lucky penny, keep it and you'll win the Daytona 500.' I glued it to the dashboard on my race car. Maybe it helped.

"It's still there. When I turned the car over to Daytona USA, Lisa France [Kennedy] said I had to leave it there. I wanted to take the penny to Rockingham for luck, but Lisa said no, she wanted it to stay where everybody could see it."

Winning also put a stop to the question Earnhardt has been hearing, and dreading, for most of the last 19 years: "When are you going to win the Daytona 500?"

"You guys [writers] are going to have to come up with something new when we get to Daytona next year," he said with a mischievous grin. "How about, 'Can you win your ninth Winston Cup championship?' "

He's already conceding himself No. 8.

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