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He is "a pure driver," says Petty, who quickly adds, "I never claimed to be a great driver. All I wanted to be known as was a winner." Petty won by calculation, finesse and superior financing. He turned out victories like manufactured products—200 during his career, still a NASCAR record. Earnhardt has only 63 Winston Cup victories and will almost certainly never approach Petty in that department. During Petty's first 14 seasons, 1958 through 71, the NASCAR schedule included 40, 50, even 60 races a year. The current Winston Cup schedule has only 29 to 32 races a year. So Earnhardt will never have the statistical opportunities Petty had. "He might have won three hundred races," Petty says, "if he'd come along when I did."
Petty usually made a spectacle of a NASCAR race only at the end: He ran conservatively, waited for attrition, then made his move in the final few miles. Earnhardt makes it a show all the way. Whether he actually wins a race is almost irrelevant to the spectators, whose pulses he makes pound all afternoon. Earnhardt turns a black Chevrolet into 3,500 pounds of virtual athlete, catching the draft with seat-of-the pants instinct, with pure feci for the turbulent air around him and the cars brushing his. He finds grooves where traction seems nonexistent, and he regularly gets in and out of jams no other driver could escape.
Some say Earnhardt is the best there has ever been in NASCAR. But, says Petty, "there's never the best. There's always a faster gun." What is clear is that Earnhardt is head and shoulders above the rest of the current NASCAR drivers.
"I had a better supporting cast," says Petty. "I had [David] Pearson." The retired Pearson remains second to Petty on the alltime wins list, with 105. "About half a tick behind Pearson were [Calc] Yarborough [83 career wins] and [Bobby] Allison [84 wins]." Earnhardt's lack of stellar competition "is not his fault," adds Petty. "It's just the circumstances."
Because of grave attrition over the past six years, Earnhardt is the only bona fide NASCAR star left standing. Tim Richmond was billed as an onrushing peer of Earnhardt's before he died of AIDS in 1989. Alan Kulwicki, the only driver to break Earnhardt's string of championships in the '90s (Kulwicki won the Winston Cup in 1992), died in the crash of a private plane in April 1993. Davey Allison, who stood his ground with Earnhardt on the tracks and accused other NASCAR drivers of letting themselves be intimidated by his rival, died of injuries suffered in a helicopter crash in July 1993. Ernie Irvan, who was rapidly gaining on Earnhardt during the first half of the '94 season, suffered severe head injuries at Michigan International Speedway last August, and the prognosis for his return is uncertain.
Among the survivors. Bill Elliott, a prime rival of Earnhardt's through the mid-and late '80s, has languished in a slump recently. Elliott is a pure speed merchant, more suited to superspeedways—smooth but without much taste or instinct for beating and banging on the short tracks. And Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt's current top competitor, suffers from chronic inconsistency. He won eight races in '94 to Earnhardt's four. But Earnhardt finished races consistently high—the key to amassing Winston Cup points—while Wallace periodically did not finish, due to mechanical failures.
So here sits Earnhardt, alone at the pinnacle of his sport, rolling in money...and still hungry after all these years. Still in a hurry without knowing why.
With a flick of his hand he dismisses his deluge of wealth. It's simply what "makes me be able to afford to turn a wheel...craaaaank on that steering wheel. That's the only thing important. I still want to race."
How much money is enough?
"Ain't counting money," he grouses. "Ain't counting it by the dollar. I'm counting it by what's the next race. I want to win the next race. The next race is the Daytona 500 [the '95 season opener, scheduled for Feb. 19]. I've never won it. I've won 24 races at the Daytona Speedway. More races there than anybody else, ever. But I've never won the Daytona 500."