Pride fuels Earnhardt's drive to seek elusive Daytona title


The way Dale Earnhardt tells it, he and Darrell Waltrip were sitting together on Earnhardt's porch last month, looking out over some of Earnhardt's 300 acres near Kannapolis, N.C.

It was a pleasant afternoon, until Waltrip spoiled it.

"When we get old," Waltrip said, "I'm going to enjoy sitting here with you, reminiscing about how you've never won the Daytona 500."

Earnhardt has won five Winston Cup championships, the last one coming last season. But winning the Winston Cup without the Daytona 500 title is similar to being ranked No. 1 in tennis without having won Wimbledon.

"When I'm old and retired, I don't want to be sitting in my rocking chair listening to Darrell Waltrip reminding me that, while I may have a lot of championships, he won the Daytona 500 [in 1989] and I never did," Earnhardt said. "To me, that's inspiration."

Sunday, when the 34th Daytona 500 goes green, Earnhardt will be making his 14th attempt at winning. Depending on how recent history is interpreted, either Earnhardt's time is near, or fate has decided he will join five other Winston Cup champions who never have won Daytona. Rex White, Joe Weatherly, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace may not be bad company, but they're not the company Earnhardt wants to keep.

The frustration has increased in the past two years. In 1990, Earnhardt was the class of the field until he cut a tire on the closing lap and unknown Derrike Cope drove home to his first Winston Cup victory.

Last year, Earnhardt again had the car to beat, but handling problems did him in, and Ernie Irvan, in only his third full season, took the checkered flag for the second victory of his career.

"I've had this race won more than once -- and lost it," Earnhardt said. "We're going after it. We're not giving up on it, that's for sure. I know the competition is harder than it has ever been.

"Look around, Mark Martin, Davey [Allison], Ricky Rudd, Harry Gant, Darrell, Rusty -- they've all got good chances, and so does the new team Junior [Johnson] has put together with Bill Elliott. I think that team is going to be a force."

Elliott will be starting in the front row Sunday alongside teammate Sterling Marlin, both driving Johnson's Fords. Earnhardt, who was seventh-fastest overall in qualifying, is driving the fastest Chevrolet at Daytona International Speedway going into today's Twin 125-mile qualifying races.

"All of them make my job harder, but I like a challenge," Earnhardt said. "It's something you have to do: Go try to win Daytona. . . . It's our first goal. And then we're going for another championship."

More is on the line this season than just another Winston Cup or a Daytona 500 victory. Though Richard Petty's seven Winston Cup titles are at best two full seasons away, a record held by the Cale Yarborough/Junior Johnson team can be captured this year.

In the history of the sport, only Yarborough has won three consecutive Winston Cup championships, accomplishing the feat in 1976-78.

Earnhardt wants title No. 6 to be his third straight. And he wants it to be well earned -- not like No. 5, which he thought was achieved during an "off season."

Even Petty, who says he'll be glad if it is someone such as Earnhardt who breaks his championship record, agrees with his pursuer about last season.

"Every championship I won, I won by driving flat out on every lap from the opening race of the season through the last race of the season," Petty said. "Dale's like that. . . . he hasn't backed into them. But I think they got a little lax last season, got a little ahead of themselves and let things slip a little."

Letting things slip meant winning a championship, four Winston Cup races, a Daytona 125-mile qualifier and the Busch Clash. But to Earnhardt, it paled when compared to the year before, when there were nine race victories and he made the competition quake before each and every race.

"To me, we came up short, and because of that, we're rededicating ourselves and working harder than we have in years," Earnhardt said. "What we want is to be a little more intimidating -- starting Sunday."

NOTES: A six-car crash and two other accidents in practice for Sunday's race forced five drivers -- Rudd, A. J. Foyt, Brett Bodine, Michael Waltrip, Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Bobby Hillin Jr. -- to move to backup cars for the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races. There were no injuries. The backup cars will start from the rear of their qualifying races, but the teams will be allowed to keep the qualifying speeds posted earlier this week.

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