With title No. 8 in mind, Earnhardt's fire still burns

On Motor Sports

March 19, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Dale Earnhardt certainly reminded everyone what a competitor he is in Atlanta last Sunday. He won, by a nose, over Bobby Labonte, the man many believe to be the No. 1 competitor for this season's Winston Cup championship.

Earnhardt, as most know, is the cantankerous seven-time champion who is not shy about his desire to win No. 8 and break the tie with Richard Petty, who was the series' first seven-time champion.

"I believe I have one more left in me," said Earnhardt, who will turn 49 April 29. "I'm going to do everything I can to get it."

After a 58-race winless streak, Earnhardt has returned to form. He won three times last year and had 21 top-10 finishes. Now he appears to be on a roll that could very possibly lead to championship No. 8.

There are those who don't want to see him do it, because they don't want to see him leave Petty, who will always be "The King," behind.

And, there are those who don't think he can do it, because as three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, and even Petty, admitted years ago, there comes a time when drivers simply become unwilling to take the risks they once did.

"The last years of my career," Petty said, "the car had to be a whole lot better to make up for what I wouldn't do."

But it doesn't appear Earnhardt has reached that point yet.

Certainly his performance last Sunday would say he hasn't. He drove as hard as he could for as long as he could. Watching, it seemed as if he had said to himself: "I'm going to win this race or crash trying."

So much for the "Winston Cup boring-race syndrome" that threatened to engulf the sport in its first four races.

Imagine, Dale Earnhardt, knight in shining armor.

"The Man in Black" sits third in points going into today's Mall.com 400 in Darlington, S.C. It is a track that usually demands taking a major risk at some point. The track is known as being "too tough to tame" and for years Earnhardt was just like it.

Given his recent demonstration, it looks like he is again.

"This man here can still win plenty of races," said Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, shortly after Atlanta. "And we ain't forgot about that championship, either."

Local contributor

Sixth-grader Eddie Mehl of Westminster decided he could help when he saw a Baltimore Sun story last October about Cody Unser's paralysis and her foundation.

He passed the hat among his peers a week later at the Silver Spring (Pa.) WKA Go Kart Challenge. The resulting Zip- Loc bag full of dollar bills, quarters and other assorted change added up to a $120 donation to the Cody Unser First Step Foundation.

"It's great this young man took the initiative to help Cody help others," said Cody's dad, two-time PPG Indy Car champion Al Unser Jr.

Thursday, Al Jr. placed Cody Unser First Step Foundation decals on his Tickets.com Indy racer at Phoenix International Raceway, where he will drive today in the MCI WorldCom 200 Indy Racing Northern Light Series.

Eddie, who attends West Middle School in Westminster, also had a big racing weekend planned, as he was to open the 2000 WKA Junior Sportsman II Virginia Dirt Series competition in Margarettsville, N.C., in his 1998 Phantom Stalker Go Kart yesterday.

He also runs in the Maryland Dirt Series. Eddie will have the same Cody Unser First Step Foundation decals on his car that Al Jr. has on his in Phoenix.

"It's so neat what Eddie did," said Cody, 13, an Albuquerque seventh-grader who fell victim a year ago to the rare spinal cord condition called transverse myelitis. "I wish every racer at every level between Eddie and my Dad would run these decals. The more people who know about TM, the better chance that this won't happen to other people. Motor sports can really help at all levels."

Latino first

NASCAR's diversity will broaden April 1 at Texas Motor Speedway when IRL driver Roberto Guerrero, who has finished second in the Indy 500 twice, begins sharing a ride with his brother, Jaime, in the Busch Grand National Series.

Roberto, 41, will drive in 11 races, while Jaime, 28, will drive in five and then race for Rookie of the Year in 2001.

The Guerreros will be the first Latino drivers in NASCAR's modern era. The team will be owned by first-generation Cuban-Americans Rudy Rodriguez and Mike Vazquez.

Nuts and bolts

Earnhardt's Atlanta victory means there have been four different winners in four Winston Cup races this season. With 22 straight races, Ken Schrader has the current longest active streak of running at the finish. Who noticed Bobby Labonte's first-place points lead is the same as his car number, 18?

Showing he hasn't fallen too far from the tree, Winston Cup rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver to qualify in the top 10 at each race this season. He also leads the rookie standings, 42-36, over Matt Kenseth.

CART driver Dario Franchitti, who fractured his pelvis and suffered brain contusions in a crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway Feb. 9, has been cleared to practice. The CART FedEx Championship Series begins March 26 at Homestead. "I'm really looking forward to getting back in my car and rejoining the team," Franchitti said. "I told them I don't want anybody else in my seat. That's my car."

Winston has increased the purse for the May 20 The Winston All Star Race by $500,000 for a total payout of $2 million.

Wheaties, the longtime "Breakfast of Champions," has picked an all-star lineup for a series of limited-edition packages honoring auto racing: Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough will each be featured at three- to four-month intervals. Together, they have won 354 races and 13 championships. While the packages will be available primarily in the Southeast, they can be purchased online at www.generalmills.com.

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