Not spinning wheels over 0-for-Daytona Missing title: Dale Earnhardt says he does not get worked up over not having won the Daytona 500 in 17 tries.

February 14, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt wants to win the Daytona 500. He's waiting to win.

But yesterday morning, as his team worked on his Chevrolet in unusually cold, 30-degree temperatures, Earnhardt sat cleaning out his wallet in his nice, warm team transporter and explained why not having won the 500 isn't tearing him apart.

"Listen," he said. "You stand at the back gate of this garage Sunday evening, and you'll see 43 depressed souls go out of here: 43 drivers, 43 car owners, 43 crew chiefs, 43 tire changers, 43 engine guys. Right on down the line, because there is only one winner, and that's the 44th guy.

"But everyone was happy that he was here and was part of it. I'm not the only one who never won this race. I'm not the only one who's going to lose."

In fact, there have been 23 different Winston Cup champions, and only eight of them -- Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip -- have won the 500.

Defending Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon hasn't won it. Neither have former champions Rusty Wallace, Bobby Isaac, Ned Jarrett, Joe Weatherly and Buck Baker.

In the history of Winston Cup racing, 10 of the sport's 20 top all-time race winners have won the Daytona 500.

And yet drivers such as Derrike Cope, who has two career victories, won it in 1990, and Sterling Marlin, who has four career victories in 11 years, has won it twice and is trying to become the first driver in history to win it three straight times.

"I bet he has heard the question a million times, 'Why can't you win the Daytona 500?' " said Marlin. "It's probably the same as everybody asking me if I can three-peat. But the only place you hear it is here at Daytona, and you never hear it from the guys you race with."

But, of course, none of the non-500 winners has a name as big as Earnhardt's. And if you are recognized as perhaps the best driver ever to race a stock car, as Earnhardt is, it is a noticeable gap in the resume.

For Earnhardt not to win it is like Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino never winning a Super Bowl, like tennis star Ivan Lendl retiring without winning Wimbledon.

"After you win the Daytona 500," Benny Parsons, the 1975 winner, has said, "you are forever introduced as the Daytona 500 champion."

Earnhardt may not need the introduction. There are so many handles by which he is identified -- the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the seven-time Winston Cup champion -- another one may get lost in the shuffle.

The title he is really interested in is "eight-time champion." No one has that one. That one would be special.

"I'm going to try to win this race," he said. "But if I was given a choice, if someone said I can win the Daytona 500 or the championship, I would take the championship without hesitation.

"I want the eighth as much as I wanted the seventh, maybe more. It's the next one to win. It's the one that sets the record. A lot of people want to see me win it. A lot of people don't. It's like politics. You take a survey, 48 percent of the people want me to, 48 percent don't want me to and 10 percent are undecided."

Except when it comes to Earnhardt, almost no one is undecided. You love him or you hate him. There is no other way to deal with the man whose competitive nature has driven him to 68 career victories.

And one would think it would be that competitive nature that would make not winning the 500 intolerable to him.

"It doesn't eat at me," he said. "I'm a better competitor than that. I go beyond the losses or the disappointments or the defeats, to the next race, to the next win. I think that's why we've won championships and why we're going to do it again, because we don't let one disappointment dictate what's going to happen to us in the next race or the next."

But Earnhardt's not winning the 500 seems to take on a life of its own here, and he acknowledges he'd like to win.

"Winning the Daytona 500 is what it's all about," he said. "That's what everybody works for. We've just been unfortunate to be close a lot of times and somebody like Ernie Irvan passes you on the last lap. That's the way it happens."

It's happened to him a million times. Well, maybe it just seems like a million. Over 17 attempts, he has 13 top 10 finishes. He has finished second three times. But the closest he ever came to winning was in 1990, when he dominated the race and was on the backstretch of the last lap when a tire shredded. He finished fifth.

"Now that was disappointing," he said. "That was depressing. It took me longer to get over that; it took me awhile to get over that. But usually, I just go off by myself and sulk overnight and I'm over it."

This time, for the first time, he is on the pole and will lead the 44-car field to the starting line Sunday.

That's different. Maybe the final result will be different, too.

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