Earnhardt's 7th title fit for a King

October 24, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt needed 50 points in the AC-Delco 500 yesterday to clinch a record-tying seventh Winston Cup championship.

He got 127.

Looking like a champion, Earnhardt won the race for his first victory in 20 starts. With the points and the victory in hand, he claimed the championship and a place in history alongside Richard Petty.

And then Earnhardt searched for words to express the depth of his emotions.

"I never thought I'd see one championship, let alone seven," he said. "And I can't sum any of them up in one word. It's going to take a long time to sink in before you've really got a grasp on seven championships."

Some of it certainly sank in last night, as he and his car owner, Richard Childress, flew to New Mexico, saddled up two horses and with a guide set off on a five-hour ride into the mountains in search of "the ever-elusive elk."

But yesterday, in the sand hill country of North Carolina, Earnhardt considered how he has come to be on the mountaintop of Winston Cup racing.

"I just tried to put it out of my mind, the idea of tying Richard Petty's record," said Earnhardt, 43. "I knew what it would mean. It would mean a lot to me, and I'm really proud and honored to be in the same group with him as far as being tied with him.

"But he's still The King. He's done it all. He pioneered it and got us where we are today. I can't take that away from him -- I don't care how much I win or what I do."

Earnhardt came into yesterday's race with a 321-point lead over rival Rusty Wallace, who had won the past three races at North Carolina Motor Speedway and expected to stay in the championship hunt and possibly close the gap on Earnhardt with a good finish.

But on Lap 302 of the 492-lap race, Wallace's Miller Genuine Draft Ford slowed and then went behind the pit wall, out of the race with a blown engine.

"I congratulate Dale on a great job," said Wallace, who finished 35th and is 448 points behind the champion with two races to go. "We just blew too many engines. You just can't have things like that happen. I'm disappointed. I wanted the championship race to end on the racetrack. But he ran a great race this year, and he deserves to win with reliability like that."

The points race originally took a big turn in Earnhardt's favor when Ernie Irvan was involved in a serious crash at Michigan International Speedway Aug. 21.

Going into that race, Earnhardt held a 27-point lead on Irvan. And though Earnhardt also crashed at Michigan and finished 37th, it made little difference. His new closest challenger was Wallace, who, despite winning the Michigan race, was 214 points behind.

Despite three more wins over the next 14 races for a total of eight victories this season, Wallace could not close the gap.

It was a situation that caused a number of competitors to wonder about the worth of the Winston Cup points system that rewards durability over winning.

Yesterday, after Earnhardt captured victory No. 4 of the year and title No. 7, Childress deflected the criticism this way:

"It's like playing 18 holes of golf," Childress said. "So you score eight holes-in-one. But what happens if you can't keep it in the fairway on the other 10 holes?"

That's what happened to Wallace this year. He has eight victories to Earnhardt's four, but while the Goodwrench team was putting together a season that has included 12 top-three finishes and four others in the top 10, Wallace has finished 33rd or worse in six races, including back-to-back finishes of 37 and 35 the past two weeks because of blown engines.

"We can't win a championship with me wrecking the cars and the motors blowing up like that," Wallace said. "The DNFs [did not finish] killed us. That's what's so good about Earnhardt. They don't tear anything up. They just keep finishing."

Yesterday, on this oval that measures just over a mile at 1.017, Earnhardt not only finished, but he also dominated.

He started 20th, worked his way to the front and led a race-high 108 laps, including the last 77, as he beat a charging Rick Mast to the finish line by .06 of a second.

Along the way, he averaged 126.407 mph and avoided 10 accidents, including several that occurred almost directly in his path.

"I grew up around racing," said Earnhardt, who dedicated the championship to his friend, Neil Bonnett, who was killed in a crash at Daytona last February. "My dad was my idol, and everything evolved around him. And then I got my opportunity to race. And I got so much help -- from Ned Jarrett to Tiny Lund . . . the Pearsons, the Pettys, the Allisons, the Yarboroughs and all of them have made me a better racer.

"It's been everything they taught me that has brought me here and made me the racer I am. People say I'm from the old school, that I'm aggressive, that I race harder than I should sometimes, but I learned from the guys who raced like that. I drive a race car 100 percent-plus every race. . . . And that's what I intend to do until the day I retire."

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