After all those titles, Earnhardt still covets a victory at Daytona

February 08, 1994|By Michael Vega | Michael Vega,Boston Globe

Dale Earnhardt knows that if he wins another Winston Cup championship without winning the Daytona 500, he'll likely go down in the annals of sports history with some ignominious figures.

"Hey, they'll probably start calling me the Buffalo Bills of NASCAR," he said in a recent teleconference, taking a self-deprecating jab at his record of futility in the Super Bowl of stock car racing.

Earnhardt, who has pocketed about $1.3 million of his $20.2 million in career earnings at Daytona, has won just about every bauble at the 2.5-mile trioval except the crown jewel. He has suffered one heartache after another in the Daytona 500, losing in almost every way imaginable.

Four years ago, Earnhardt was less than a mile away from the checkered flag when he cut a tire entering Turn 3, giving Derrike Cope an improbable win.

The following year, he finished fifth after getting tangled with Davey Allison in a last-lap shootout that sent Ernie Irvan to Victory Lane. Last year victory again was in Earnhardt's grasp when Dale Jarrett, in a bold last-lap maneuver, passed Earnhardt in Turn 2 and held on.

"But," Earnhardt was quick to point out, "I am the NASCAR Winston Cup champion. Six times. So, just like the Dallas Cowboys, I am a champion."

How could anyone dispute that?

When the 1994 Winston Cup schedule gets under way next weekend with pole qualifications for the Daytona 500 and the Busch Clash at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt may embarking on a historic accomplishment. He can join Richard Petty as the only drivers to win seven Winston Cup titles.

"The first championship I won was very good because it was the first and we really didn't realize what we were doing until we won it," Earnhardt recalled. "Every one's been different, because it had its own little quirks about it, but I think '93 was very gratifying because we had come off a bad year and we had a new crew chief and the team sort of redefined itself. We took a good look at ourselves and said, 'Hey, we've got to get back to work and work harder.'

"To come in and win that championship [a year ago] was very neat, and I remember it well," he added. "It had its tough memories because of losing Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, but still, it was a great year for us. To pay tribute to Davey and Alan with Rusty [Wallace] at the end of the year there in Atlanta and to come out of there the champion even though Rusty won the race, it couldn't have been much better."

Given that, there seems no way it can get any worse for Earnhardt at Daytona.

"I'm just going to take things as they're dealt to me. I'm not going to change things," he said. "I feel good about our chances going into Daytona. I feel good about what we've accomplished there in the past, and sure, I'd like to be the defending Daytona 500 champion. Heck, until you've won it, you haven't won it, but this year I feel like we have a good chance of doing it."

* If Earnhardt does capture the Daytona 500, he will be the sixth straight first-time winner. Only two drivers (Petty and Cale Yarborough) have retained the title. "We're confident we can win again," Jarrett said. "For anyone who believes in numbers, we've got a lot going in that direction. The only two times it's been won back-to-back was in '73 and '74 (by Petty) and '83 and '84 (by Yarborough). The Cowboys won the Super Bowl again, so we'll wear the Cowboys helmet in the 500, and maybe we can win again."

* Irvan, who will pilot the No. 28 Havoline-sponsored Ford that was previously driven by the late Allison, was quickest during preseason testing last month at Daytona. Irvan went 191.042 mph and was quicker than a Chevy Lumina driven by Harry Gant (190.838).

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