DOVER, Del. -- When he won his fourth championship, no one asked if he could win five. And when he won No. 5, no one mentioned No. 6. The only question put to Winston Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt was whether he could win seven and match Richard Petty's all-time record.
Now Earnhardt, 42, appears to be on his way to No. 6, and although he privately has admitted to being driven to win No. 7, he doesn't like to address it.
"I really haven't thought about it," he said. "We've got to win No. 6 first. I can't go past one to get to the other. I've got to get this one first. It's like playing Monopoly. Do not pass go, do not collect $200."
And yet, it's clearly on his mind.
"If we can put this one in the bag, it's going to be good for us," he said. "Then we'll just keep trying to do it better."
That might be a frightening thought to the Winston Cup drivers who will compete against him today at Dover Downs International Raceway in the SplitFire 500. Earnhardt, with six victories this year, is looking to win on this one-mile oval for the second time this season, having won here in the June 6 Budweiser 500.
Earnhardt's chief rival, Rusty Wallace, will start on the pole, while he will start his Goodwrench Chevrolet ninth. Wallace is in second place in the championship chase, 285 points behind. He would like to repeat the performance of the late Alan Kulwicki, who left Dover a year ago 278 points behind and wound up beating Bill Elliott for the title by gaining an average of 46.3 points a race.
Wallace would need an average gain of 40.5 points a race to pull off a similar victory.
It's a daunting task, even if Earnhardt says he's not special.
"I just try to stay consistent and true," Earnhardt said. "I'm just a guy from Kannapolis, N.C., a cotton mill town, who went through the eighth grade in school, worked hard and went out and found a deal that he could do and do well. I excelled in what I could do, in my sport, in my profession. And I've been very fortunate, because a lot of people don't go that far without a good education."
Through the decades, there are only a few men whose racing accomplishments have made them household names. A. J. Foyt, the first man to win four Indianapolis 500s. Mario Andretti, the only American to win championships on both the Indy Car and World Formula One circuits. Richard Petty, the only seven-time champion in Winston Cup or either of those other two major racing series.
Earnhardt says he hasn't thought about stepping into that class.
"When I go home, I put my blue jeans on and ride a tractor," he said. "The other night I was down at the poultry houses till 10
o'clock, checking things out and locking up. I don't think I'm any better than any one else out here.
"But I get a kick out of the competition. No matter what I do, I want the most, whether I'm hunting or fishing or whatever."
Ever since Earnhardt won his fourth title in 1986, Petty has been saying, "If anyone is going to beat my record, I'd just a soon it be him, because Dale's a racer."
Then, a couple weeks ago, respected car owner Bud Moore revealed what he thinks about the current state of Winston Cup racing. At the time, Mark Martin was in the midst of a record-tying, four-race winning streak.
"There are only three kinds of drivers in this sport now," said Moore, who had Earnhardt as his driver in 1983 and 1984. "First there's Earnhardt, then there are the two or three who can race with Earnhardt and then there is everybody else."
When Earnhardt won his first title in 1980, in his second full year of Winston Cup competition, someone might have called it luck. And as he waited for car owner Richard Childress' operation to mature over the next few years, some might have thought that was all anyone was going to hear from Earnhardt.
After all, no one else in the sport had ever gone six years between championships. Lee Petty had to wait four between his first in 1954 and his second in 1958. And Petty waited four years twice, from 1967 to 1971 and from 1975 to 1979, when he won what then seemed an untouchable No. 7.
After winning his first title, Earnhardt did not make it in the record books again until 1986. Then he won his second and third back-to-back. Elliott and Wallace won their only titles in 1988 and but then Earnhardt scored again: No. 4 in 1990, No. 5 in 1991.
And yet, last season, when his team won just once and finished what Earnhardt considered an embarrassing 12th in the points, there was speculation that the Childress/Earnhardt team had lost its touch, that the once-indomitable team was finished.
What no one seemed to take into consideration was the thing Petty talked about all those years ago:
Dale Earnhardt is a racer.
"A contender," is how Earnhardt puts it. "It's life to me. It's everyday life. It's like you write stories week in, week out. I don't know that it's much different. This is just something I do and do well."
* Ted Musgrave led yesterday's second-round qualifying with a lap of 150.678 mph, the fourth-quickest qualifying lap of the weekend. Musgrave will start 21st in the 37-car field.
The top 20 positions were set Friday, with Rusty Wallace's Pontiac taking the pole at 151.464 mph.
* Brett Bodine will miss his first NASCAR race since joining the Winston Cup circuit full time in 1988 after getting a small bruise on his brain and a broken right wrist in an accident during practice Friday. Bodine was released from Kent General Hospital last night.
Dick Trickle will take Bodine's place in the race. Trickle, driving a Ford, was the third-fastest in qualifying yesterday at 149.613 mph and will start 23rd.
1. Rusty Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 151.464. 2. Ernie Irvan, Ford Thunderbird, 151.184. 3. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Lumina, 150.697. 4. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 150.432. 5. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird, 150.376. 6. Rick Wilson, Pontiac Grand Prix, 150.200. 7. Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird, 150.056. 8. Harry Gant, Chevrolet Lumina, 149.613. 9. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Lumina, 149.502. 10. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Lumina, 11. Bobby Labonte, Ford Thunderbird, 149.260. 12. Rick Mast, ++ Ford Thunderbird, 149.260. 13. Bill Elliott, Ford Thunderbird, 149.105. 14. Derrike Cope, Ford Thunderbird, 148.840. 15. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 148.613. 16. Hut Stricklin, Ford Thunderbird, 148.558. 17. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Lumina, 148.490. 18. Sterling Marlin, Ford Thunderbird, 148.484. 19. Jimmy Spencer, Ford Thunderbird, 148.460. 20. Phil Parsons, Chevrolet Lumina, 148.350.
21. Ted Musgrave, Ford Thunderbird, 150.678. 22. Ricky Rudd, Chevrolet Lumina, 150.432. 23. Dick Trickle, Ford Thunderbird, 149.613. 24. Michael Waltrip, Pontiac Grand Prix, 148.988. 25. Lake Speed, Ford Thunderbird, 148.350. 26. Dale Jarrett,
31. Dave Marcis, Chevrolet Lumina, 147.474. 32. Bobby Hillin Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 147.017. 33. Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 146.134. 34. Bob Schacht, Chevrolet Lumina, 145.384. 35. Jeff Purvis, Chevrolet Lumina, 145.009. 36. Kenny Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 144.834. 37. Jimmy Means, Ford Thunderbird, provisional.