Inside Motor Sports

July 09, 2000

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 titles, 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 that
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 1/2 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 airtime 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.

After the Crash
Bodine May Be Looking for Ride

When Geoffrey Bodine pulled into Daytona International Speedway
last Thursday for the first time since his violent crash in a
Craftsman Truck Series race there in February, he understandably
had serious concerns. "I had my little dog in the car, and I
snuck her in without getting caught," he says. "That's what I was
thinking about."

Bodine, who is devoutly religious, has adopted a positive
outlook on the wreck, which sent him hurtling down the
frontstretch in a ball of fire. In addition to being knocked
unconscious, he suffered a broken right wrist, second-degree
burns and numerous lacerations and bruises. "You might think I'm
crazy," says Bodine, who finished 34th in the Pepsi 400, "but I
wouldn't change anything that happened. I survived."

That might not be enough to save his ride, though. With his
primary sponsor, Power Team, likely to pull out after this
season, car owner Joe Bessey is mulling replacing Bodine in the
driver's seat with himself.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Earnhardt has won four times since teaming up with Hamlin.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)