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Earnhardt may have relief driver for Brickyard 400

With a record eighth Winston Cup title beckoning, Dale Earnhardt isn't about to give up standings points without a fight, no matter how painful.

Earnhardt, who fractured his left collarbone and sternum in a crash during Sunday's DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, said he will attempt to qualify his Goodwrench Chevrolet on Thursday. Then he plans to at least start Saturday in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he is defending champion.

Under NASCAR rules, the driver who takes the green flag earns the points for that race, even if he gives way to a relief driver after the first lap.

Despite finishing 28th in Sunday's 42-car field, after being involved in a wild, multicar crash at about 190 mph, Earnhardt fell only one spot in the standings.

He is third, trailing new series leader and defending Winston Cup Jeff Gordon by 23 points. Terry Labonte, who had been leading the standings, fell nine points behind Gordon after being involved in the same accident late in Sunday's race.

After spending Sunday night in a Birmingham hospital for observation, Earnhardt flew back to North Carolina on Monday and immediately met with car owner Richard Childress, crew chief David Smith and team manager Bobby Hutchins at the team's race shop in Welcome.

They picked Mike Skinner, an occasional Winston Cup starter and the team's full-time driver in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, where he won the 1995 championship, as the relief driver for Earnhardt at Indy.

"He was a unanimous choice by all of us," Childress said. "He knows our cars and setups and we know his ability."

Skinner, who is to become Earnhardt's full-time teammate next season when Childress adds a second car, has started 12 Winston Cup races _ three for Childress this season _ with a best career finish of 12th at Rockingham, N.C., in the second event of 1996.

David Allen, president of the Championship Group, which does public relations for Earnhardt and Richard Childress Racing, said: "Mike will practice in the car on Wednesday and Friday and will stand by on Saturday."

"Everybody is worried about the points right now and the championships," Childress said. "Our concern is Dale Earnhardt. But he's tough. He can handle it."

"All I can say is I was very lucky," Earnhardt said Monday after his first close look at the wrecked Chevy. "I feel very fortunate. It is a situation like this that makes you appreciate the high standards required by NASCAR. It also shows you what a great car the guys at RCR build."

As for the choice of Skinner, 38, as his relief driver, Earnhardt said: "Mike will be a great asset for us as he has tested for us several times recently and he is very capable of keeping us in the points race."

FITTIPALDI UPDATE: Emerson Fittipaldi was transferred from Michigan to a hospital in Miami for surgery to repair a neck fracture, hospital and IndyCar officials said.

Injured in a crash early in the Marlboro 500 on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Fittipaldi was in serious but stable condition when taken from St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, hospital officials said.

The hospital said in a written release that Fittipaldi was scheduled for surgery Monday night at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. It said Fittipaldi's prognosis was good.

Fittipaldi completed only one lap before clipping the car of rookie Greg Moore while trying to pass and ending up in a fiery crash.

It took rescuers 15 minutes to get Fittipaldi, 49, out of the wreckage. He was airlifted to the Foote Hospital in nearby Jackson.

He was transferred to St. Joseph Hospital later Sunday. X-rays revealed a fracture of the seventh cervical vertebra and a partly collapsed left lung. IndyCar officials said Fittipaldi also had a fractured left shoulder blade.

Diehard 500

The Diehard 500 at Talladega will be broadcast at 2 p.m. Sunday on Ch. 10.

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