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Change of gears for Earnhardt; Racing: As a Daytona 500 defending champion for the first time in 20 tries, Dale Earnhardt is happy to address a new set of questions.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt has never experienced a Daytona 500 week like this.

For the first time he is the defending Daytona 500 champion, having earned that distinction with a victory in the big race last February. It was his 20th try.

So this week, there are no more questions about how disappointed he is at not winning or whether his career will be complete without a Daytona 500 victory.

"All that's behind us," he said, with a sly grin. "But now, they want to know how it feels not to have those questions asked. You can go along and bug Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace and some of these other guys."

These "other guys" are the longtime racers who now walk in Earnhardt's old shoes. They are the ones who have never won the Daytona 500. Crusty old Dave Marcis leads the list with 31 unsuccessful starts, followed by Ricky Rudd with 21 and Labonte with 20. Among the other double-digit non-winners are Kyle Petty with 17 and Wallace with 16.

This year, the questions for Earnhardt are about his chances for an unprecedented 10th straight victory in Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races, for a rare back-to-back 500 victory and for an unmatched eighth Winston Cup championship.

Now everyone wants to know how he feels, or what his team is doing to get stronger in the face of Godzilla, otherwise known as Jeff Gordon, the winner of three of the last four Winston Cup titles.

And Earnhardt, unlike his former self, is taking time to answer.

"It's unique to win that race [125-mile qualifier] so many times, especially 10 times in a row," he said. "You don't know why it happens and you don't know how you do it. It just happens."

But then he confided: "I'm sort of worried about breaking that streak this year.

"If you don't win, what's going to happen? People are going to think you've really lost it now. But then you go on and win the Daytona 500. That's what's really on your mind."

Only three men have managed back-to-back victories here. Richard Petty in 1973 and 1974, Cale Yarborough, in 1983 and 1984, and Sterling Marlin, in 1994 and 1995.

The odds for Earnhardt, who ended a 59-race winless streak with his Daytona triumph and who hasn't won since, aren't terribly good. But a year ago he was inspired to believe he could, at last, win the 500 after Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway finally won his first Super Bowl.

Earnhardt said he was watching Elway, 38, last month when he won for a rare second straight time.

"I was glad to see him do it just for that reason," Earnhardt said.

Now the defending race champ is hoping he can follow Elway's lead once more.

"To be able to do that would be great," Earnhardt said. "To start the season on a winning note and get this team back into the feel of racing in the top five and racing for the championship is what I want to do."

At 47, Earnhardt not only drives his Black No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress, he owns three race teams of his own. One each in Winston Cup (Steve Park), Busch Grand National (his son, Dale Jr.) and the Craftsman Truck Series (Ron Hornaday).

He also has a rooting interest in the performance of another Busch car, the No. 40, which is driven by his oldest son, Kerry, 29, who is running for rookie of the year.

But despite those diversions, Earnhardt is insisting that he is focused and determined to go after another championship.

"Winning the Daytona 500 did make my life a lot happier," he said, recalling the moment when all the near misses -- the flat tire, blown engine, hitting of a sea gull -- receded into the past forever.

"It was a tremendous win," he said. "And it was a lot to think about. But not winning the eighth championship last year, that was a lot to think about, too. [Retired seven-time champion] Richard Petty hasn't won the eighth championship. It's mine to win right now. It's mine to lose, too. We'll see how it goes."

He said his Childress-owned team is "still very able to win championships and win races."

Earnhardt's last title came in 1994, and he is the last driver not in a Rick Hendrick-owned car to win the series crown. But in each of the last five years, his top five and top 10 finishes have declined. And last season, he finished eighth in the point standings.

"Richard and I really worked hard [in the off-season] on our strategies to make the team as good as we can," Earnhardt said.

Childress is encouraged because he has been able to retain all the people who worked on his cars last year, and too, because Earnhardt has expressed his renewed interest in getting back to the top.

"He's still got the desire to win," Childress said. "Neither one of us are happy running like we have. I feel like maybe we let him down a little bit with the crew chief thing last year, but you can't control people."

Childress was referring to the need to swap crew chiefs between his two teams at midseason. Earnhardt, teamed with Larry McReynolds at the start, won here but failed to click thereafter. At the same time, driver Mike Skinner and crew chief Kevin Hamlin did not work well together. When Childress teamed Earnhardt with Hamlin and Skinner with McReynolds, both teams improved almost immediately.

"We're trying to put our program back where we can do the job," Childress said. "Dale will get it done. Those last four races [last season], I watched a lot of the little things and I was as impressed as if we'd won."

Childress, Earnhardt (as owner of Dale Earnhardt Inc. [DEI]), and Andy Petree, who owns the teams of Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace, have spent more than usual on aerodynamics testing and shared the results of those tests. DEI and Childress also shared information from their engine programs.

Earnhardt made a point of going to Childress' shop again. Not to work on the car, but to walk through the garage and talk to the guys, "to make sure everybody is excited about what's going on and what's happening and to let them know that you're interested about what's going on.

"I'm not ready to quit, [and] I'm not ready to sit here and run in the top 20 or somewhere in the field. I want to go out and win.

"We've got to get this turned around," said Earnhardt, the man who is tied with Petty for the most championships of all time. "We've got to get back in the running for it. Winning this race would be a great start."

Daytona schedule

Today 12: 30 p.m.: Bud Qualifying begins in this order: NBS (2 laps pos. 1-25), NWC Round Three (2 laps), Goody's Dash Series (1 lap pos. 1-25.)

Thursday 12: 30 p.m.: NWC Start of the 40th Gatorade 125-mile qualifying races (50 laps.)

Saturday

Noon: Start of the 41st NAPA Auto Parts 300 NBS Race followed by NWC Final Practice (1 hour).

Daytona 500

What: 41st Daytona 500, opening race of NASCAR's 1999 Winston Cup season

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, noon

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Pole-sitter: Jeff Gordon

Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt Pub Date: 2/09/99

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