Originally created 12/18/97

Earnhardt committed to end misery



NEW YORK -- Don't look for Dale Earnhardt to run up the white flag if he suffers through another agonizing season.

Despite a career-worst 59-race losing streak, the seven-time Winston Cup champion insists he isn't about to quit, this year, next year or any time soon.

"We're not done yet. We've got several years left in us," Earnhardt said of himself, car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Larry McReynolds.

Together they were supposed to make the ride better than ever. They never came close.

But in another eight weeks, the driver chosen in a NASCAR survey as the best in the history of stock car racing, will jump into his familiar black Chevrolet Monte Carlo to begin his 20th season on the circuit.

His 19th is one he'd rather forget: In the opener, he flipped on the backstretch in the Daytona 500, leaving him 0-for-19 in the sport's premier event; he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed at the start of the Southern 500; and for the first time in 16 years -- after 70 career victories -- he failed to win a race.

"Richard, Larry and I did some some soul searching," Earnhardt said. "We looked at the way this team was organized, what changes we made."

The most significant was the addition of McReynolds, who joined the GM Goodwrench team after several seasons of success with Robert Yates Racing. He took some of the criticism for Earnhardt's failures in 1997, but the driver isn't blaming him.

"Larry was a change, but I don't think we changed enough," Earnhardt said. "But we got better at the end of the season, and that's something you want to carry over. If we can do that, this will be a good season."

But it will take more than soul searching to transform a bad season into something worthy of another blue ribbon.

"That's right," Earnhardt said. "You can't talk about it. You have to do something about it.

"We're not going to sit around and wait for something to come to us. If we do, we'll be sitting there alone. This is a competitive business. It gets harder to win all the time. You have to go out and work hard and make things happen for you."

At least the 46-year-old Earnhardt knows things can't get much worse than they were in 1997.

Among other things was the start of the Southern 500, where he crashed twice on the first lap without a mechanical problem or interference from another driver. He compounded it by riding around for two laps, unable to find his way to pit road.

While Jeff Gordon raced to a million-dollar bonus that day in Darlington, S.C., Earnhardt was down the road in Florence having his head examined. Doctors wanted to know why he inexplicably dozed off at the wheel just as the green flag was being waved.

"It's just one incident that happened, and never another problem," Earnhardt said. "I feel great."

Then the subject was broached. It took only two words -- two dreaded words -- Daytona 500.

Earnhardt's story at Daytona International Speedway is one of immense success. He has 29 career victories -- a number that seems unapproachable. But in the big race, he has been the Boston Red Sox on wheels -- glorious in defeat.

The most famous loss came in 1990, when after dominating the event for 499 miles, he blew a tire one mile from the checkered flag. Last year, while chasing the leader with a dozen laps to go, the car went upside down -- sort of like his career.

Can he right himself, or will the third Sunday of February be nothing more than defeat No. 20 in the big show?

"Numbers, " Earnhardt said. "Just numbers."

There is only one of them that matters to him -- eight -- as in championships he will own should he outrun Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin just one more time.

"No one's ever done that," Earnhardt said.

Indeed, eight would be unprecedented. But so is 0-for-59 if you're Dale Earnhardt.