The wine was never sweeter, the days of summer never cooler. Lecturers at seminars in nondescript motel rooms were never more meaningful.

Racing's golden years were the late 1980s claims Kirk Shelmerdine, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt when Dale won four of his seven Winston Cup championships. "Those were the pure and innocent years," Shelmerdine says.

It was before jets chauffeured drivers from track to track. Before motor coaches lined pit areas, sealing each driver into his own vault, keeping him out of reach of the public, the media and crewmen he might not want to see.

"There were about a half dozen of us, I guess-me, Will Lind, David Smith, Chocolate Myers, Danny Lawrence and, of course, Richard Childress. Earnhardt was either with us, or we were in close contact with him all the time.

"There were good guys back at the shop, but we were the ones on the road together, crammed into a van and a room at Motel 6. Most of the time drivers lived on the road with their crews."

Shelmerdine says that sometimes when a new person went to work at the shop, "Dale would walk right by him and never speak, sometimes not even look at him," he says. "It was just a test to get the reaction of the newcomer.

"Earnhardt could be tough, but some of that toughness he was credited with having was just his front. He was a very sensitive person. I'm not sure that was a part of him he liked. He would let things get to him. The wrong word at the wrong time would bother him. There were a lot of people he cared about."

Shelmerdine knew Earnhardt better than any crewman in the business. His four titles with Childress puts him second on the win list among crew chiefs. Dale Inman is first with eight.

"We had lines we did not cross, but not many," Shelmerdine says. "I could read Dale's mood. His personality was outgoing, and if he was mad, it didn't take long to figure it out. You just had to tiptoe around it and go on with what you were doing."

Earnhardt did not like distractions. He admired talent and struggled with potential. One day at Talladega in the back of his hauler, Professor Earnhardt spoke on the pitfalls of potential. "Say you're a track star, and everybody says your potential is to run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds," Earnhardt says. "Then one day you actually run it in 10 seconds. That's no longer your potential. Now your potential is 9.9 seconds. It never stops."

"There was nothing in the world that would make him happier than winning a big race, especially if he had to pull something off to get the victory," Shelmerdine says.

"The most disappointed I ever saw him was when he had to get out of the car at Indianapolis a week after that bad wreck at Talladega. That upset him, so the next week he won the pole at Watkins Glen. That was payback to himself for having to get out at Indy."

Shelmerdine, a native of Philadelphia, moved south in 1976 to drive a stock car. He worked for James Hylton for three and a half years, then joined the DiGard team when Darrell Waltrip was driver, Buddy Parrott crew chief, and Robert Yates the engine builder. In the fall of 1980, he joined Childress when Childress was still a driver. He stayed with Childress Racing through the '92 season and, like a cowboy hero, rode off into the sunset pursuing his dream of becoming a driver.

He has won half a dozen races and 10 or so poles on the ARCA and Sportsman circuits. He hopes to make the field for this year's Daytona 500.

Shelmerdine firmly believes Earnhardt's death robbed the seven-time champ of an eighth title-maybe more. "There were times in the '90s when things didn't go well for the man, but late in his career, the last season or two, things were looking up. The crew was getting the cars to where Dale was enjoying the races again. He had that sparkle in his eyes. 2001 would have been a great season for him."

Then, would Earnhardt have discarded the word "potential?" Probably not. Behind that sly smile, he would have said: "I don't know why I won this eighth championship. I guess now they will expect me to win it again next year."

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