From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, September 7, 1987
DALE EARNHARDT WAS JUST HANGING OUT IN THE BACK OF his team's trailer before the Summer 500 at Pocono International Raceway when a local stock car racer approached him with a problem: On the track he could catch his opponents, but he just couldn't seem to pass them. Earnhardt told him that when a driver is following someone he wants to pass, he should strike fast and get it over with; patience when passing is no virtue, the master emphasized. Then he added, "But whatever you do, don't hit him."
Coming from Earnhardt, that advice sounded downright hilarious. This year he has won nine of 20 races and $1,122,320 and leads the series by a mile. But frequently, according to his critics, Earnhardt drives his yellow-and-blue Monte Carlo SS as if it were a bulldozer. His aggressive style has stirred the passions of racing fans—delighting many, outraging some—given heartburn to officials and infuriated his fellow drivers. Meanwhile his favorite response to anyone who doesn't like his style is a smile, a shrug and the suggestion, "Feed 'em fish heads."
On the track drivers such as Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty think he often crosses the border between tough and rough. Others—Tim Richmond, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker—say they would trust him on their bumpers on the final lap. NASCAR officials have pronounced the 35-year-old Earnhardt merely careless in the crunch. Careless enough to win might be more accurate. Of Earnhardt's nine victories this season, three came after he nudged the leaders out of the way—Harry Gant at Richmond in February, Sterling Marlin at Bristol in April and Alan Kulwicki at Pocono in July.
And then there was his May win in The Winston, a 20-car invitational in Charlotte that is, in effect, NASCAR's all-star game. Earnhardt was involved in three separate incidents during that race—make that five, if you count the two on the cool-down lap when Elliott and Bodine each slammed into him to express their displeasure with the way he had just beaten them for $200,000. Earnhardt countered that he never touched either one of them and charged that, in fact, Elliott had tried to push him off the track. "He's just thrusterated [sic] because he had the race won and then got beat," he said.
Lately things have eased up, although Earnhardt's right foot hasn't. He's bulldozing toward a third championship. "There's no pressure on me when I'm in a race car. Hell, that's the best time in my life," he says. "I love racing. It was born and bred in me by my daddy, and that's why I'm so good at it. Racing comes just like breathing to me. It's always going to be there, like my damn heartbeat."