DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt stroking?
"Stroking?" said the five-time Winston Cup champion. "Stroking! I'm not stroking. I'm out there trying to win."
Earnhardt and his Richard Childress-owned team have a 309-point lead with nine races left on the Winston Cup circuit. It is the largest points lead any driver has had going into the Mountain Dew Southern 500, tomorrow at Darlington Raceway.
This is the time of year referred to as the "Silly Season" in NASCAR, when rumors circulate concerning which driver will be with which team next year.
That phrase could just as easily refer to the whispers that Earnhardt is "stroking" -- racing just to protect his lead, not to win.
The speculation can't be pinned on anyone. It is always: Someone heard someone else say. . . . In major-league stock car racing, it is comparable to accusing a pro football team of running out the clock to protect its lead.
"The people in this business will try everything to disturb our concentration," Childress said. "Believe me, they'll try anything -- but most of the time it backfires."
Childress contends his team is racing the same way it has all season, with strong, consistent runs toward the front.
But the naysayers point to last week's race at Bristol, Tenn., where Earnhardt finished third without making an attempt to pass for the lead.
"It's amazing," said Childress. "Our car was no better than a seventh- or eighth-place car last week. Dale drove his butt off for a third-place finish and all anyone says is he didn't go for the lead.
"Dale only knows one way to race -- all out. And we only know one approach, and it doesn't matter how big or little the lead is: You go out to win and be consistent. There is no way we're changing our style."
"But," broke in crewman Will Lind, "what if we were trying to protect our lead? So what? What difference does it make? When they run down the list of champions there isn't going to be any little asterisk saying: 'Earnhardt -- stroked and won X-number of races.' "
On the record, those closest to Earnhardt in the standings -- Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin -- say the championship is in the bag, that a 309-point lead is insurmountable, unless Earnhardt has a couple disastrous outings. Tomorrow's race is the 21st in the 30-race NASCAR season.
But Earnhardt and Childress point out that Alan Kulwicki was 277 points behind after Darlington last year and won the championship by 10 points.
And they also point out that in 1985, there was a 307-point swing, when Bill Elliott left Darlington with a 206-point lead and lost the title to Darrell Waltrip by 101 points.
"If we had an 800-point lead, I might consider protecting it," Childress said, eliciting a snort from his driver.
Said Earnhardt: "This team races to win, no matter what."
NOTES: Ken Schrader clocked 161.259 mph and will start his Kodiak Chevrolet on the pole tomorrow. Harry Gant will be on the outside of the front row and rookie Bobby Labonte, who got lost finding his way to the track yesterday, will start third. Earnhardt is sixth in the starting lineup. . . . Car owner Robert Yates made it official yesterday that Ernie Irvan will drive for him the rest of this season and for the next four years. Yates said Irvan bought his way out of his contract with the Kodak Film Chevrolet with his own money for a sum speculated to be about $500,000. . . . Irvan qualified 10th in the car formerly driven by the late Davey Allison.
WINSTON CUP POINTS
(Through Aug. 28)
No. Driver ... ... ... ... ... ... Points
1. Dale Earnhardt ... ... .. .. .. 3,214
2. Rusty Wallace ... ... ... .. .. 2,905
3. Mark Martin ... ... ... ... ... 2,887
4. Dale Jarrett .. ... ... ... ... 2,860
5. Morgan Shepherd ... ... ... ... 2,796
Kyle Petty ... ... ... .. .. .. 2,617
7. Ken Schrader ... ... ... ... .. 2,581
8. Geoff Bodine ... ... ... ... .. 2,567
9. Ernie Irvan ... ... ... ... ... 2,532
10. Jeff Gordon .. ... ... ... ... 2,526