'Intimidator' bears down on Labonte's points lead

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto racing

July 16, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It's like one of those seven "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies with Freddy Krueger. Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup Champion known as The Intimidator, is baaaaaack.

With this weekend off, Earnhardt is sitting just 45 points off Bobby Labonte's rear bumper in the chase for the Winston Cup title.

Forty-five points is nothing, and for Labonte, seeing Earnhardt poised for attack probably is a nightmare.

But isn't it something to see Earnhardt, whose first title came in 1980 and most recent was 1994, in the hunt for No. 8?

If he wins it at age 49, he will be the oldest champion in Winston Cup history, beating Richard Petty, who was 42 when he won No. 7 in 1979, and Lee Petty, who was 45 in 1959, when he won the title for the last time.

Earnhardt is excited.

"I think our whole program is the reason I'm up there," he says of his rise to contention six years after his last title. "The new [model] car, the down force it has, the overall drive-ability. The fact that Kevin [crew chief Kevin Hamlin] and I have had more time together and get on so well."

Richard Childress, who owns the Earnhardt car and the one Mike Skinner drives, has not been afraid to move people from one of his teams to another to find the right mix. That's how he got Hamlin and Earnhardt together.

Childress had gone out four years ago and bought the services of Larry McReynolds, the man regarded as the best crew chief in Winston Cup racing at the time, to team with Earnhardt. Despite the fact that they liked each other very much and managed to win the Daytona 500 together, the ways each liked doing his job did not click.

So Childress moved McReynolds to the Skinner team and moved Skinner's crew chief, Hamlin, over to work with Earnhardt.

"I'm so happy, so grateful that Richard did that," Earnhardt said. "Richard has fine tuned and everybody on our team really wants to be there. I want to be there. Over the years, I've been offered bigger deals, but I feel Richard's is the place to be."

Earnhardt said he has another four years left to race but that "the opportunity to win is now," because the team is solid and he is healthy. Earnhardt had back surgery during the off-season and for the first time in several years looks and sounds like his former self.

"I may have been hurt the last two years and didn't realize it," he said. Childress agrees, immediately linking his driver's improved health to his resurgence.

Many others have noticed.

Jeff Burton notes Earnhardt is "driving harder and more aggressively than I have seen him in three years."

Defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, who is in third place, believes Earnhardt will get tougher. Earnhardt calls Jarrett and Labonte "the guys to be concerned with."

"Obviously, he has more experience at winning championships than Bobby and me put together. And we could take a lot of other people and add them to that mix, and he'd still have more experience," Jarrett said. "As the season winds down, and if he can hang around - and [I] certainly feel that he will - it's going to be interesting to see."

If Earnhardt wins No. 8, will that mean there will be another "Nightmare on Elm Street"?

Two too many

With 16 races still ahead, the 2000 season already has been one of more heartache than NASCAR and its fans have experienced in a long time.

Lee Petty, the Petty family patriarch, passed away in April. Adam Petty, 19, his great-grandson and first fourth-generation athlete to compete in a major sport, was killed in a crash during practice at Loudon, N.H., in May.

Then nearly 100 fans were injured when a walkway at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., collapsed two weeks later.

And last week, driver Kenny Irwin, 30, was killed during practice at New Hampshire International Speedway, just yards from where Adam Petty crashed.

In each case, there was a rush to judgment.

There is still no clear resolution to Adam Petty's accident, though speculation continues to center on a stuck throttle. The concrete construction at Lowe's was found to be faulty. And now, after Irwin's death, opinions vary about the cause, even as NASCAR investigates.

Immediate reaction was split: The third turn of the Loudon track is defective, or the track is fine and the fatality was just an unfortunate coincidence.

The track has been in operation since 1990 without a serious accident until Adam Petty's and Irwin's crashes. Until last week, no one had voiced any serious concerns about that third turn, flattest of the track's four.

As in the Petty accident, speculation is that Irwin's throttle also stuck. NASCAR investigators have found witnesses who have noted Irwin's engine was accelerating beyond the normal spot where drivers enter the turn.

As in the Petty accident, NASCAR officials say the exact reason for the crash may never be known.

Midwest Transit driver Ricky Craven said drivers accept the risk.

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "We don't give 10 cents worth of thought to it [the risk]. You just don't give any consideration to this until it happens. Then you don't know how to deal with it.

"But it isn't fair to speculate."

Still, some drivers, such as Jerry Nadeau, who drives the No. 25 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, hopes the owners of the Loudon track will look into what can be done to make the third turn safer. They could add banking or energy absorbing barriers, like those tested at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two years ago.

"The speeds are a lot faster now than they ever have been," Nadeau said. "We've lost two great guys already in just a few months. Hopefully, they'll do something."

Bob and Gary Bahre, who own the race track, are waiting for the outcome of the NASCAR investigation. Shortly after Irwin's death, however, Bob Bahre said he is not opposed to making changes for safety - if that is NASCAR's recommendation.

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