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'The Intimidator' still thrilling fans

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2000

With every pass, block or get-out-of-his-way bump, The Intimidator showed he still has it.

The 140,000 fans packed into Talladega Superspeedway were riveted by each move, responding with a cheer, groan or knowing nod to a neighbor.

Every time Dale Earnhardt rushed through the field from the rear last Sunday, people would stand and holler, many raising a hand in the air with three fingers extended, a tribute to his black No. 3 Chevrolet.

He's 49 and six years past his last Winston Cup championship, but Earnhardt continues to thrill fans as no other driver can. It shouldn't be any different Sunday in Rockingham, N.C.

''They call Jimmy Spencer 'Mr. Excitement,' but nobody excites a crowd like Dale Earnhardt,'' said Richard Childress, the team owner for whom Earnhardt has won six of his seven championships.

In the latest work of art by the superspeedway master, Earnhardt left even his detractors shaking their heads in awe and admiration.

With 10 laps remaining and 25 drivers crowded into the fast-moving lead pack, Earnhardt was 23rd.

He moved up to 18th with five laps left and appeared content simply to gain a few more spots and pick up much-needed points in his fight with leader Bobby Labonte.

But then, amazingly, Earnhardt began to shoot forward, slashing through the field and picking up positions by the bunch.

When he surged past son Dale Jr. to take the lead with one lap left, a roar rose from the vast Talladega grandstand. And when Earnhardt took the checkered flag, the place went wild, with strangers high-fiving each other.

It wasn't just another stock-car victory for Earnhardt, who now has 76 of them. Somehow, this one was special.

As the Victory Circle celebration went on far across the track from the main grandstand, thousands of people remained standing, chanting: ''Earnhardt! Earnhardt! Earnhardt!''

When he made the trip to the pressbox for the victory interview, Earnhardt was greeted by several thousand people screaming his name and cheering. He was forced to climb onto the van that brought him to the back of the grandstand, and he did an impromptu jig that brought cries of joy from the fans.

Finally, he walked into the pressbox. But the sound from outside persisted, this time with chants of ''Dale! Dale! Dale!''

The object of all this adulation smiled happily, took in the relative quiet of the pressbox and said, ''That was fun.''

Above all, this man -- thought to be on the downside of his career only two years ago -- has been reborn as a race driver. He is part of a championship battle that many would like to see him win, and he is racing at the front of the pack again every week.

The victory at Talladega was only his second win of the season, but Earnhardt now has 22 top-10 finishes and 12 top-fives in 30 starts.

''He's driving as well as I've ever seen him,'' said three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who at 53 is closing out his career without a win since 1992.

''It doesn't look to me like he's lost anything. Most of us feel like we can still get the job done as we get older, but he's doing it. In fact, it looks to me like Earnhardt's getting better.''

Earnhardt is enjoying this rebirth as much as anyone can.

Looking as if he had just come in from a leisurely Sunday drive, Earnhardt smiled and his eyes sparkled.

''I was feeling totally relaxed out there,'' he said. ''I don't know what it was, but the car was just handling so good all race long that I never felt any pressure. I just felt good and was enjoying it.''

His victory, combined with Labonte's 12th-place finish, left Earnhardt trailing the leader by 210 points with four races to go.

That means another comeback is needed if Earnhardt is to get the record eighth title he wants so much.

''If we can get it down to 150 or less with a couple of races to go, I think we've got a shot at putting the pressure on,'' Earnhardt said, grinning. ''Anything can happen.''

When Earnhardt's involved, you don't have to prove that to the fans.



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