Despite setback, Earnhardt gets in all the laps he can Finishing race may be crucial to Winston Cup

February 17, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt was in the ambulance and about to be driven to the Daytona International Speedway's infield care center yesterday, when he looked back at his crumpled race car.

"I saw the wheels were still on it," he said after the crushing accident that had seen his car roll over and off the speedway and land in a heap on the backstretch grass with 10 laps to go in the Daytona 500.

"I jumped out and told the guy in the car to fire it up," he said. "And when it started, I said, 'Get out! Give me my car back!' "

Earnhardt is tied with Richard Petty with seven Winston Cup championships. But Petty also has seven Daytona 500 victories. Earnhardt has none.

Yesterday, when he climbed back into his mangled black Chevrolet, it wasn't about winning Daytona. He already knew he'd be 0-for-19 when he left the Speedway.

"I don't know if I could have won it," he said, after congratulating Jeff Gordon on his victory. "But we were sure in position to win."

What climbing back in his race car was about was championship points. Every lap might make a difference in where he finished the race and how many points he'd get. By the end of the season, it might be the difference between winning a title and not.

So Earnhardt jumped back in his car and drove it as fast as he could to the pits, where his team taped its dangling parts in place. He lost five laps, but he was still running at the finish, to come home 31st.

Love him or hate him, no one can deny the 45-year-old Earnhardt's racing heart. Last season, after breaking his collarbone and sternum in a wreck at Talladega, Ala., he was back in his race car four days later, qualifying for the Brickyard 400.

And yesterday, no one could deny his determination to win an eighth Winston Cup championship.

"We took off after 'em," he said. "You've got to get all the laps you can. That's what's important. That's what we're running for. Winning Daytona one day will be nice. But what we're really focused on is that eighth championship. No one has one of those."

The accident occurred when Gordon set off a chain reaction by making a tight pass on Earnhardt as the two exited the second turn on the 189th lap.

Gordon, who would wind up becoming the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500, looked in his rear-view mirror and saw Earnhardt's car flipping through the air.

"Most guys would have been finished," Gordon said. "But never count that guy out. He's made of steel. We saw what he did with broken bones last year and I think we'll see that determination each and every race for the rest of his career. "We're going to be in a real battle for the title. That's for sure. But that's why they give him the nicknames they give him -- Ironhead, the Intimidator -- and that's why we look up to him. And that's why so many race car drivers want to pattern themselves after him. Unquestionably, he's the best driver out there."

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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