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Success drives "Intimidator'

Dale Earnhardt overcomes injuries and a winless season in his quest for his eighth title.

It is only fitting that when Dale Earnhardt climbs into his black No. 3 Chevrolet on Sunday afternoon for his 600th consecutive start it will be at Watkins Glen International.

After all, just three years ago at the Glen Earnhardt made a dramatic comeback from a nasty wreck that threatened, among other things, to end that streak. At the same time, the man they call the Intimidator showed he is more than a driver looking to win a race _ he's a racer.

The problem began July 28, 1996, when Earnhardt got wrapped up in a multicar crash at Talladega, Ala. After his car hit the wall and soared into the air, it landed on its roof and was drilled by two more cars.

As a stunned crowd of 110,000 watched, Earnhardt slowly removed himself from the wreckage and shrugged off emergency workers as he struggled to an ambulance. He stayed in a Birmingham hospital overnight after doctors diagnosed a broken collarbone and sternum.

The next week, Earnhardt didn't drive his car in qualifying but started the Brickyard 400 before being replaced by Mike Skinner after a caution on Lap 6.

Then came Watkins Glen, the 2.45-mile road course. Earnhardt was still hurting; his collarbone and sternum rattled every time he started the car and the safety harness didn't help.

But after 20-odd years on the circuit, Earnhardt knew one thing: You have to be tough. He proved that day he is one of the toughest around.

After qualifying on the pole, he eschewed all suggestions for a replacement driver, driving the entire 90-lap race and finishing sixth. That day the racing world learned what keeps the 48-year-old driver of the No. 3 Monte Carlo going.

"It was a pretty tough day," Earnhardt said. "But the mental state of being able to be on the pole pumped me up. My mental drive on race day was helping me overcome most of the pain, but late in the race the pain was pretty strong. That's why we ended up sixth instead of fourth or maybe even better."

Sixth, fourth or 16th, it didn't matter to Earnhardt that day. His goal was to finish the race in the driver's seat with his car in one piece.

"You have to do those kind of things to stay on the track and keep up your end of the bargain with the team. It probably slowed the healing process up somewhat, but looking back I'd probably do it the same way," he said. "We all play hurt. Mark Martin is playing hurt right now with a bum knee and all. We've all had problems through our career to overcome; whether it's a bad handling race car or bruised up body, you just go ahead and do your job."

And Earnhardt has done his.

He has won seven points championships and a Rookie of the Year title, driven to Victory Lane 72 times, sat on 22 poles, earned nearly $35-million in winnings and started 599 consecutive races. He is second only to Terry Labonte in consecutive starts, and then only because a wreck at Pocono in 1979 caused him to miss four straight races.

"It's been a long time and that rascal ain't been hurt up either. He's hangin' in there," Earnhardt said of Labonte, also a rookie in 1979. "That's why he's the Ironman. I was just a little too hurt after Pocono in '79. If not for that, we'd probably be right there with him."

It may seem like there's not a lot left for Earnhardt to accomplish, but he's still pushing forward.

Earnhardt is adjusting to a new aerodynamics program, a new chassis program and a fairly new crew chief, Kevin Hamlin, who joined the team in June of last season. Earnhardt hopes that combination will help his team "turn the corner."

"Turning the corner to me is where you're winning a race every couple weeks and contending for a win every week. That's where we were before and that's where we got to get back to," he said. "I don't care where it is, which track it is or where you go. You have to be a contender and to be up front to win."

There has been progress. After not winning in 1997 (his first winless season in 15 years), Earnhardt rallied last year to win his first Daytona 500 and has picked up a victory this year at Talladega.

Hamlin said the success of the team is due in large part to communication between him and Earnhardt.

"You have to work back and forth with each other and make the best decision possible," Hamlin said. "I think we're supposed to teach each other things. He comes in and tells me things about the speedway that other drivers never told me.

"He got out of the car at Daytona and made a statement to me and I was like "Wooooooooooooooooooo.' That's kind of what I thought was going on, but nobody ever told me like that. I found it real interesting that he explained it or said that. It was really cool."

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