ATLANTA -- Seventeen years ago, Dale Earnhardt was doing the best he could on the dirt tracks around Kannapolis, N.C. He was 21 years old, and his daddy, Ralph, a legend on the dirt-track racing circuit, had died not long before.
All Dale Earnhardt knew was that he wanted to race.
"I didn't have any plans for winning Winston Cup championships," he said yesterday. "I just wanted to win races."
It was then that another racing legend and former Winston Cup champion pulled him aside and changed his life.
"Boy, you have to get off this dirt and go asphalt racing, go NASCAR if you're going anywhere," Bobby Isaac told Earnhardt. "You've got to decide, are you going to work on that car or drive it?"
Dale Earnhardt decided to drive.
Sunday, in the Atlanta Journal 500, the 38-year-old could drive into history by winning his fourth Winston Cup championship.
"I don't know if anyone will ever match Richard Petty's 200 wins and seven championships," Earnhardt said. "But I'd like to get No. 4. I don't know if I can ever win seven, but I'm alive, so there is a chance."
After Petty's seven titles, there is a gap; no one has more than three. If Earnhardt can make his six-point lead over Mark Martin stand up in the closest points battle in history, he will separate himself from Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson and Lee Petty -- the other three-time winners.
Today, when Earnhardt drives into Atlanta Motor Speedway, the adrenaline will start to flow.
Yesterday, Earnhardt looked in the rearview mirror.
"I'm a big Richard Petty fan," Earnhardt said. "The King's the King and there won't ever be another King, not in my lifetime. He's a tough competitor and I've learned a lot from Richard over BTC the years I've been in racing. He's shown me how to deal with fans, the media, with victories and losses." Sunday, Earnhardt will find out if he has moved closer to The King.
"Win, lose or draw, no one has anything to be ashamed of," Earnhardt said. "This has been a great, competitive championship race. When it's over, I'm going to do what I've seen Richard do. I'll get out of the car, smile, say a few words and then get on with it. I'm going hunting."
Earnhardt's first title came in 1981, the second in 1986 and the third in 1987. All three trophies are in Earnhardt's living room.
"I'm building a new house and I want to have a room just for my trophies," he said. "I've got so many of them, they're stacked on shelves and they're all over the floor in the basement. I love looking at them, because I have a memory that goes with every one of them. When I get old and retired, I'm going to enjoy just sitting among them and reminiscing."
He is not close to doing that now.
"The biggest thing that has stayed the same is that when I sit in the car as a driver, I want to win," he said. "I can look around at some drivers and see the fire die in them, but I don't feel like it's dying in me."
Earnhardt's mother, Martha, still lives in the same house he grew up in, and works part-time in a children's shop.
"She never met another man like Ralph Earnhardt," said the son. "No one can measure up. I can't. Daddy quit school in the eight grade . . . but he had so much common sense it was pitiful."
Ralph Earnhardt drew geometric designs on the floor of his workshop with dried up pieces of soap to show how engines worked, how race tracks were designed, to show his son what to do in a race to keep from being spun out.
"I dropped out of school in ninth grade," Dale said. "I had flunked a grade and I couldn't concentrate on the books. All I wanted to think about was racing cars. I remember Daddy begged me not to quit. He said, 'Boy, you get that high school diploma and I'll buy you a brand new car tomorrow.' I wouldn't do it. I didn't want a new car. I wanted to work on the race car.
"I regret that now more than anything in my life, not going to school for that man."
Dale Earnhardt managed a smile.
"Who knows," he said, "I might not be a race car driver if I'd have listened. Maybe I would have been a math teacher. But if I'd gone to school I would have made Daddy happy."
On Sunday, Mark Martin and his Ford Motor Co. team will throw everything they can at Earnhardt.
Earlier this week, Martin's car owner, Jack Roush, said Ford is making this a team effort. Martin will drive a Ford built by competitor Robert Yates for his own driver, Davey Allison.
The Ford Martin will drive tested a full 2 mph faster than Chevrolet.
Earnhardt faked terror when asked about the Ford strategy. Then he said it is no big deal.
"I'm comfortable with our team," said Earnhardt. "If I was Mark and getting in a different car with different technology, I'd be very nervous. But I don't think it changes the complexion of the race. We planned to go all out to win and we still do."