Earnhardt backs up Elder's boast
TOM HIGGINS SCUFFS
Wednesday, Jan. 05, 2011
Third in a five-part series on NASCAR races that linger especially in my memory, events which I would like to cover all over again. Where is a Time Machine when you need one? The stories will run in chronological order.
Jake Elder stared off toward the Tennessee mountains towering in the distance behind the third turn at Bristol Raceway.
The colorful NASCAR crew chief and his rookie driver, Dale Earnhardt, had been kidding around with motorsports writers on pit road, exchanging one-liners.
But now, for a moment, Elder turned earthy and serious as he drew on a thin cigar on March 31, 1979, the eve of the Southeastern 500. He eyed Earnhardt seriously and abruptly stated something that seemed outrageous at the time.
Stick with me, kid, and someday well both be wearing diamonds as big as horse turds.
Earnhardt grinned in astonishment. Those of us gathered around the two chuckled at Jakes salty choice of words in predicting great success for the driver who soon would turn 28 years old.
It took only 24 hours for Elders prophecy to start fulfilling itself.
On April Fools Day, Earnhardt, charged to his first Winston Cup Series victory in what was to become one of NASCARs greatest careers.
No tomfoolery was involved in the outcome. Driving a Chevrolet fielded by Californian Rod Osterlund, Earnhardt simply outran two of stock car racings best Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip to take the checkered flag at the .533-mile track.
The three had been in close contention most of the way in the 266.5-mile race. Among an estimated 26,000 fans and the press corps the expectation was that Allison and Waltrip would use superior savvy to pull away from Earnhardt and settle the issue between themselves.
This seemed even more likely when a late caution period developed and the trio pitted for four tires.
Elder had been with Earnhardts team only three weeks. Surely, superior communication and teamwork would favor the Allison and Waltrip outfits during the service on pit road. However, Earnhardts crew was fastest, and he whipped back onto the track in the lead ahead of Waltrip and Allison. When the green flag showed on the 477-th lap Dale was gone, much to the astonishment of the fans, who had expected the rookie to be put in his place.
Earnhardt steadily pulled way to a 2-second lead and was 3 seconds ahead of runner-up Allison at the finish.
It was the first time in a stretch of 132 races over five years that a rookie had triumphed on NASCARs top circuit. The last to do it was Canadian Earl Ross in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway in 1974.
When Earnhardt came to the press box for the victors interview the magnitude of his accomplishment still was sinking in.
Earnhardt, obviously touched deeply, couldnt help thinking of his father, the late short track star and national sportsman division champion, Ralph Earnhardt. His dad had died of a heart attack in 1973 at age 45.
I know that somewhere theres a fellow thats got a big smile and is mighty, mighty proud and even more happy than I am, said Dale.
His eyes moistened a bit. And, somewhat surprisingly, so did those of Elder, a tough, seasoned old pro.
Its by far the biggest win of my career, no question, Elder said with much emotion, belying his reputation as a rugged ol kingmaker who had built and fielded winners for superstars such as Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, Benny Parsons and Waltrip.
Dale can be as good as anybody I ever worked with.
Allison and Waltrip also praised Earnhardt.
Dale was aggressive. He didnt make any mistakes that I saw all day, said Allison. He did an excellent job.
Added Waltrip: Dale ran really, really good. He was the one to beat. I got a bad set of tires at the end, but it might not have mattered. I congratulate him.
Seldom in Elders long career had he come to press boxes for post-race interviews with his winning drivers.
But this was special, he said, and the guy known as Suitcase Jake because he changed teams so often wanted to emphasize the point.
I saw how The Boy (Earnhardt) ran at the Daytona 500 in February and I was impressed, said Elder. Someone thats been doing this as long as I have can spot raw talent.
We ran our first race together at Atlanta on March 18 and I was even more impressed. I knew right then we were going to win some races this year
I tell you, there is no limit to what he can do.
No one ever compared Jake Elder to Nostradamus, the storied seer of the Middle Ages who has had many bizarre predictions seemingly come true.
But by 1980 Dale Earnhardt had become the Winston Cup champion in only his second full season, winning five races along the way. Unfortunately, Elder wasnt there when the Osterlund team took the title. In keeping with career-long character, he had developed a rift with others on the team and moved his tool box on to another shop.
As Earnhardt pushed his victory total to 76 triumphs through the years, sixth most alltime, and tied Richard Petty with seven championships, he never forgot the early influence of Jake Elder on his career.
Nor the brazen prediction of fabulous riches that Elder made for him that April Fools weekend at Bristol in 1979.
When Dale Earnhardt lost his life almost 10 years ago during the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, he could have owned diamonds perhaps double the size of horse droppings.