Is Earnhardt best NASCAR driver of all?


HAMPTON, Ga. -- All that Dale Earnhardt has to do Sunday to win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship is lift a finger.

With that, Earnhardt will flip the ignition switch of Richard Childress Racing team's Chevrolet to start the Hardee's 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

When Earnhardt takes the green flag for the last of the season's 29 races, the title and approximately $1.3 million in bonuses are his, no matter what happens afterward.

It is to be a fifth championship for Earnhardt, 40, second only to Richard Petty's seven. Earnhardt's success in big-time stock car racing's modern era, which began in 1972, has stirred considerable speculation among those who follow the sport closely:

Is he the best driver ever?

The main argument of those who feel Earnhardt is the most talented is this:

Although Earnhardt has "only" 52 victories, four this year, to the record 200 of Petty, Earnhardt's wins and titles have come during a more competitive period.

It's pointed out that when Petty, 54, who is planning retirement after the 1992 season, was winning so big in the 1960s the schedule included up to 60 races. The fields weren't always filled zTC in those days at some short tracks, and often only two or three other cars anywhere near the equal of Petty's were present.

Starting in '72 the schedule has ranged from 28 to 31 races, and since Earnhardt took his first title in '80 at least a dozen first-class cars ran every event.

Earnhardt seems embarrassed by the suggestion he's the all-time best.

"There is only one Richard Petty, and he's The King," Earnhardt has said repeatedly. "I don't think there's a comparison. . . I could never top him as far as being a better driver. I've never thought about being the best or greatest. Not even when I started out in what amounted to jalopies back in the mid-70s. I just wanted to drive a race car like my daddy."

Dale's father was Ralph Earnhardt, a two-time NASCAR national champion in the Sportsman Division, now known as the Grand National Series. The elder Earnhardt, rated by some as the greatest dirt track driver ever, died in 1973 of a heart attack.

Earnhardt concedes he hopes to equal or even surpass Petty's record for championships.

"If I can keep going as strong as Harry Gant is, then the chance should be there," said Earnhardt. "Harry is 11 years older than me and he's won five races this year. . . If I can stay in as good a shape as Harry has, and I plan to, I should have 10 more pretty good seasons of racing left."

Earnhardt already holds one of motorsport's record for prize winnings. His Winston Cup total is $13,909,874. Darrell Waltrip is second with $11,024,517.

Where do the experts rate Earnhardt in terms of all-time ability?

Very highly, but short of having him dethrone Petty.

Said Ned Jarrett, a two-time Winston Cup champion and now a broadcaster: "From early in Dale's career I've said if there ever was a natural-born race driver, he is it. He just seems to have an uncanny ability to do incredible things with an automobile. He can save them when they're so far out of control it's amazing."

Most memorable example of an Earnhardt "save" came in The Winston all-star race in 1987 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Bumped into the grass between the front straightway and pit road by Bill Elliott, with whom he had made contact earlier, Earnhardt ran off the pavement for a stretch of about 200 feet. He came back on the asphalt still leading. The maneuver has come to be known as "The Pass In The Grass," but that's a misnomer. Earnhardt never lost the lead.

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, said, "Dale could be the best ever, but he isn't yet . . . I'd have to put Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough ahead of him. Maybe the late Curtis Turner, too. Curtis was a natural like Dale, a seat-of-the-pants driver. Curtis' problem was that he was born too soon, before stock car racing became a national sport.

"If Dale can race competitively five or six more years and make the transition past age 40 to keep running strong like Richard, David, Bobby and Cale did, then he could emerge as the greatest. We've got to see if Dale can sustain his career that way."

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