Hail to the Chief
A change at the top of his crew has Dale Earnhardt back in the lead pack
Imagine George Steinbrenner sending down Joe Torre to manage in Triple A and bringing up Trey Hillman from Columbus to skipper the Yankees. Two years ago, that is essentially what Richard Childress did with his two race teams. Judging by the car owner's results—and taking into account Steinbrenner's fickle nature—Torre may want to start pricing homes in central Ohio.
In 1996 Childress hired Larry McReynolds to be Dale Earnhardt's crew chief. On paper the union looked like a can't-miss proposition: Earnhardt shared the NASCAR record with seven Winston Cup tides, and McReynolds had twice come within an eyelash of leading Davey Allison to a championship. On pavement, though, the marriage was a disaster. In his first season with McReynolds, Earnhardt went winless for the first time since '81. His struggles continued in the first half of '98, and after a 21st-place finish at the Pontiac 400 in Richmond in June of drat year, Childress decided a change was in order. He sent McReynolds to work on his second car, driven by Mike Skinner, and he brought Skinner's crew chief, the unassuming Kevin Hamlin, to work on the famous number 3.
At the time, Hamlin had no wins and just five top five finishes in his 4� years as a crew chief, and four of those successes had come in '94. He was content to slowly work his way up the ranks and found the prospect of being the Intimidator's crew chief a bit, well, intimidating. "I was more interested in being with somebody I could build up," Hamlin says.
Nevertheless, the switch rejuvenated Earnhardt. He won three races in 1999, and this season, after a four-year spell of not finishing higher than fourth in the points race, he was in second place at week's end, only 52 behind Bobby Labonte. "Man, I'm so happy Richard made that change," says Earnhardt "I haven't regretted it one bit, and I love Larry to death. But Kevin is more my style of crew chief. The guy is constantly thinking, he never quits on making the car better, and he's not the kind of guy who blows up and kicks and screams. He's the kind of guy who will sit down and listen to what I say" ( McReynolds has tasted success as well, shepherding Skinner from no-name status to a 10th-place finish in the points race last year and an 11th-place standing this season.)
That's not Earnhardt's only reason to smile. Off-season neck surgery allowed him to enjoy racing again without excruciating pain. "He's been a lot more excited about each race," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who this year has given his dad his first two wins as a car owner. Non-family members have taken notice as well. "I see Dale Earnhardt driving harder and more aggressive than I've seen him the last three years," says Jeff Burton, who held off late charges from Earnhardt and several others to win the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last Saturday.
Earnhardt, 49, has his work cut out for him if he expects to catch Labonte. His last Winston Cup title came six years ago, and only Terry Labonte has gone more than five years between championships. "The key is to be a team," says Earnhardt. "You look at [ Bobby Labonte's] bunch, and they're all excited about being there. They're together. You look at us, and we're together now."
This Space for Hire
Benson Close In White Flash
One of the more remarkable stories at the Daytona 500 in February was Johnny Benson showing up in a plain white Pontiac and then securing a primary sponsorship from Lycos on the eve of the race—a race the upstart led with four laps to go. When Benson returned to the track on Saturday, he again led late (though he lost the lead on lap 121 of 160 to Jeff Burton and finished 13th) and again was involved in last-minute dealings with Lycos.
When the Internet giant failed to come through with cash it had promised, Benson's crew removed the Lycos decals from the car on Friday, rendering the vehicle plain white again. After picking up an estimated $1.1 million of TV air-time during the 500, Lycos lost big-time exposure during the Pepsi race, the only NASCAR event of the season run in prime time on a big three network.