NEW YORK -- Dale Earnhardt will walk into the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom tonight, in a beautifully tailored tux, to pick up a check for $1.1 million and a trophy proclaiming him the Winston Cup champion -- for the fifth time.
It will be all glitter and glamour for Earnhardt, 40, who owns a 300-acre farm in Mooresville, N.C., likes to drive bulldozers as well as race cars, and who would be just as happy on a hunting trip in Texas as he is being the center of attention here.
But these Winston Cup banquets -- tonight's will be carried live by ESPN at 8:30 -- are becoming routine for Earnhardt. Only Richard Petty, with seven, has won more Winston Cup titles. And when Earnhardt comes to New York these days, he is as slick and confident as he is in his driver's suit on race day.
He has been in town three days now, moving in limousine comfort from interview to interview. Because this is New York, the interviews didn't end until after mid-night this morning, when he wrapped up Larry King live.
When he isn't --ing or, given the state of traffic here, inching around the city, he is being put up in a $4,000 suite at the Waldorf, complete with butler.
"When I think back to 1976, when I was $13,000 in debt and using Robert Gee's credit card to buy gas to get to a race, just hoping to win enough to pay for the pit pass and buy gas to get home, well, thinking about that, I know how far I've come," Earnhardt said.
When Earnhardt pockets his check tonight, he will have won exactly $16 million since starting his Winston Cup career in 1979.
"I never could have dreamed this," he said, during an interview and autograph session in the Waldorf's Starlight Room yesterday. "Heck, I never even dreamed about being a Winston Cup driver. All I knew, Daddy taught me, and he drove the dirt tracks."
But Earnhardt's father, Ralph, drove those tracks better than almost anyone. Now his son is doing the same on the super speedways.
"If I had to pick someone to go after my records," said Petty, "I'd pick Dale, because he wins like a champion. Every championship I won, I drove flat out on every lap in every race and that's how he does."
Because he didn't grow up with much in the way of financial wealth, Earnhardt said he likes "to take care of my money and invest it well."
But that doesn't mean he won't spend some of it. After he won his fourth title last year, he bought his wife Teresa diamonds and himself some expensive hunting rifles.
"As we were driving back here today [yesterday] Teresa picked up the phone and bought a $2,000 dress," he said, his eyes rolling. "And she's looking at Rembrandts and Picassos. I can't see me owning a Picasso -- my mom and dad always taught me not to get above the way you were raised -- but she can see us owning one and I think she's going to have one before we leave town.
It's got me scared."
If it does, it is the only thing that has scared Dale Earnhardt in a mighty long time. They don't call him the Intimidator for nothing. After five championships, he's earned his reputation.