Dale Earnhardt had a crowd with him wherever he went in Las Vegas last Saturday night. When he got bored by the Casino de Paris floor show at the Dunes hotel and headed for the casino, those in his entourage who bet only on sure things stuck with him like pigeons to a popcorn man. That afternoon at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, they had seen Earnhardt win the NASCAR championship despite doing just about everything he could to hand it to Cale Yarborough—from clipping the pit wall to getting disoriented on the backstretch to trying to haul a hydraulic jack around the track with him. They knew a man who was blessed when they saw one, and they wanted to get their chips down where his were.
Going into the Los Angeles Times 500, the final race of the Grand National stock car season, Earnhardt led Yarborough by a mere 29 points out of some 4,000. Over the last half of the 31-race season, Yarborough had steadily narrowed a gap that had been as wide as 230 points and, having won the two races before Ontario, was on a roll. What's more, Yarborough had the best car; he had been the fastest qualifier 13 times during the year, a NASCAR record. Earnhardt, by contrast, had not won a single pole position. Often his problem was horsepower. At some races his Monte Carlo just didn't have enough, which inspired Earnhardt—in his second full season on NASCAR's premier circuit—to show folks just how hard he could drive. "I'll tell you what makes that car run," said David Ifft, crew chief for Benny Parsons, the driver who would win the Ontario race. "Dale Earnhardt makes that car run.
"He's been driving like a wild man to make up for a lack of horsepower all year. Been going into the corners deeper and just throwing it the rest of the way around. Thing is, he's good enough to get away with it."
Earnhardt himself is entirely nonchalant about his go-for-broke driving style. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" he says with a shrug. He smiles when he hears that Yarborough has complained about Earnhardt's racing too close to him. "Well, what's ol' Cale been sayin' about me today?" he asks, cheerfully lacking reverence for the 40-year-old three-time NASCAR champion.
For all his aggressiveness on the track, Earnhardt is easygoing off it. At Ontario he would cruise through the garage area in his rumbling blue-and-yellow race car, slouched down like an East L.A. low-rider driver cruising Sunset Boulevard. With the 1980 championship on the line, was he nervous about having to fight off a pack of hard-charging heroes like Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, et al.? "I can't wait till that race starts," he said.
Well, maybe he was bred for such battles. His father was Ralph Earnhardt, one of the best-known and hardest-driving stock-car racers of the '50s. The elder Earnhardt died of a heart attack at 44 in 1973, two years after his 20-year-old son began driving small tracks in the Carolinas. Ralph Earnhardt had given Dale this advice: always stay cool on the racetrack. "As a boy I remember standing on the tailgate of a pickup truck down in Columbia, watching my daddy race against David Pearson, Lee Petty, all of 'em. I come from where they been," Dale says.
Moments before he was to qualify at Ontario last Thursday, Earnhardt was cool enough to be dozing on the floor of his garage near the Monte Carlo as his crew bustled around him in last-minute preparation. When it was time to go to work, Earnhardt cracked open one eye, grinned a little and bounced up. Yarborough had already qualified at 155.499 mph and was fastest so far. Earnhardt knew what he had to do: get around Ontario's 2.5 miles faster than Yarborough, and with a car that was most likely slower. "Cale's car is strong," Earnhardt admitted as he threw one leg into the window of the Monte Carlo. He paused. "But damn! I want to run faster than that son of a gun," he said as he got his other leg in and lowered himself into the form-fitting seat.
His crew stood at the end of pit row nervously fingering stopwatches as Earnhardt began his qualifying lap. Their eyes got bigger and their jaws slacker as he drove at full speed deeper and deeper into Turn One, well past the point where most drivers ease off the throttle. The car went blaap as Earnhardt finally backed off, a full 50 yards farther into the turn than Yarborough. The rear end of the car twitched—"It was just trying to make up its mind which way it wanted to go," Earnhardt said later—and the exhaust bellowed as he floored it again leaving the turn. A whoop went up from the mechanics who had witnessed the charge, a cheer that clearly said there's nobody around driving stock cars like this man.
But Earnhardt's average was .644 mph slower than Yarborough's; he might even have gone too deep into the turn and thus been slower getting back up to top speed on the straight. Yarborough had won his 14th pole, his third in a row at Ontario. But Earnhardt, second fastest, would also be on the front row, door-to-door with his main rival. "Just where I want to be," he said with a smile.
It had taken more than Earnhardt's driving to get his team where it was. His crew's performance during the year was as impressive as his own—indeed, it was amazing. It is a relatively ragtag bunch, mostly young, mostly Californian, in a pursuit in which experience has seemed inseparable from success and in which speed secrets and family secrets have often been one and the same. The outfit had been deserted in midseason by its chief, Jake Elder, who felt the rest of the crew was not only too green but also too laid-back.