In low gear, Earnhardt fumes

Passing up points ladder difficult at slow Pepsi

Auto Racing

July 01, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The almost always present sunglasses had been laid aside. Dale Earnhardt's eyes were in full view when asked whether he is feeling pressure to bump Bobby Labonte from the No. 1 spot in the Winston Cup points race.

"I enjoy the pressure. I thrive on it," Earnhardt said, and the desire was there for all to see.

It's been some time since Earnhardt has been in this position. At the halfway point of the season, he is just 67 points away from series' points leader Labonte.

Just a half a season away from a record eighth championship.

"The mind-set I have to have is this: I've got to go to the front, I've got to get to the front, I've got to race in the front,'` said the seven-time champ whose last title came in 1994. "I've got to be serious all day about where I'm at. I'm not guarding points. I'm trying to better my position as best as I can."

Which is why being here at Daytona International Speedway for tonight's 8 o'clock (CBS) Pepsi 400 irks him. He has always loved this 2.5-mile track. He has won a record 34 different events here. But lately, with the latest restrictor plate, spring and shock rules, he has been like a cart horse running in the Preakness.

In February, at the Daytona 500, he finished 21st. Thursday, he qualified his Chevrolet 18th, more than two miles an hour slower than pole-sitter Dale Jarrett, but, is also one of just three Chevrolets in the top 20.

"The Fords and the Pontiacs should have a good race," said Earnhardt's car owner Richard Childress, who says his driver has been re-invigorated not so much by the championship race but by off-season back surgery that has left him pain-free for the first time in three years.

Keeping the speeds down is the whole point of the restrictor plate that limits the amount of air to the carburetor and thereby reduces racing speeds.

So, yesterday, while Earnhardt was enjoying the idea of pursuing a title, he was also agitated by the limitations NASCAR has put on him - and everyone else.

"NASCAR is trying to say, `OK, this is going to keep us from going too fast. This is going to keep us from going in the grandstand,'" he began. "I don't know what their problem is. ... Are they going to pull the insurance if you run over 200 mph? What's the problem with running 200 mph? ... We're one of the only sports that ties the hands of competitors on trying to go faster.

NASCAR went to the restrictor plate in 1988 when Bobby Allison's car almost flew into a crowded grandstand at Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt knows that, but Earnhardt can smell a title.

He believes the two men he has to beat are Labonte, whose Pontiac will start 21st tonight, and Jarrett. With Jarrett third in points, this Pepsi 400 has the potential to be a hindrance in his pursuit of that eighth title. And that title matters. It matters, Earnhardt said, not because it would break the tie with Richard Petty and make him the man with the most titles, but because it's the next title he can win.

"It's like being given a privilege," he said, "It's the privilege of being here and being able to win. There are minor-league baseball players who never make the majors. There are Truck and Grand National drivers who never make the Winston Cup Series.

"I'm here. I have the opportunity. If someone says at age 49 I'm riding out my years, they're not paying attention."

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