POCONO LAKE, PA. -- When Dale Earnhardt was a boy in North Carolina his father Ralph went off every Thursday evening to Columbia, S.C., to race cars on a dirt track.

Dale was too young to stay up until 3 a.m. when his father got back, but when he woke up, he'd run straight to the garage.

"I could look at the car and tell pretty much how daddy ran," Earnhardt said. "I could tell by the dirt on the hood whether he was up front, and by the bang marks and the dents how it went. I couldn't wait for him to get up, to see if I was right."

Later, he watched his father race. "I'd sit on the back of a flatbed truck, watching him go around and around, and every lap he made, I made. When I finally sat in a race car, it was like I already knew how to drive."

Ralph Earnhardt won more than 500 races in his short career but never made more than $32,000 in a year. He died of a heart attack while twisting wrenches under his racer in 1973, at 44 too young to see his son set NASCAR on fire.

These days Dale Earnhardt is tops on the circuit, the 1986 Winston Cup champion and top money-winner not quite halfway through the '87 season. He has a remarkable six wins in 11 races going into today's Miller 500 at Pocono, for which he qualified seventh. That's more wins than he had all last year or in 1980, his other championship season.

Not everyone is cheering. Foes say Earnhardt might have learned too well from his daddy -- that he still drives in the hell-for-leather, beating-and-banging style of the Southern dirt-trackers, shoving opponents out of the way to get ahead with tactics considered unsafe and unsavory on the blisteringly fast asphalt speedways of the 29-race Winston Cup series.

"What he calls aggressive, we call rough," said arch rival Geoff Bodine. "He thinks the object is to win at any cost."

"He's got his style -- a bull in a china closet," said 1985 money-leader Bill Elliott. "My feeling is, I'm here to win a race, but it isn't everything. I won't shove a man out of the way to do it."

"It's like the Celtics and the Lakers with no referees," said Darrell Waltrip. "He makes his own room." History of Confrontation

Waltrip, knocked out of the lead at Richmond in a crash last year that Earnhardt was fined $10,000 (later reduced to $3,000) for, added: "He has one of the best cars, the best crew and tremendous natural ability. If I had all that going for me, I'd be showing everybody how good I was, not how bad."

Again this year Earnhardt's style has led to confrontations, fines and cries to get him under control.

At Bristol, Tenn., in April, he roared up to challenge race leader Sterling Marlin, knocked him into the wall "and just killed our car," said Marlin, who threatened at the time, "His day is coming and he'll get it, too."

Earnhardt won that race. "He drives to win, but you don't have to run over somebody to do it," said Marlin.

At Charlotte, N.C., last month, Earnhardt won $200,000 at The Winston but made Elliott and Bodine so mad with his aggressive driving that both crashed into him intentionally on the cool-down lap, something practically unprecedented in NASCAR racing. All three were fined.

"This whole thing {stock car racing} started out as a drunken, cow-pasture brawl," said Elliott's father George. "We've done everything we could over the years to shed that image, and here we go right back in it."

NASCAR officials have taken the charges seriously enough to fine drivers and warned them of further penalties if things don't simmer down, but Waltrip thinks NASCAR's efforts are halfhearted. "The judge is the same guy who sells tickets," he said.

Earnhardt says if people think he runs into other racers intentionally, "they're nuts."

"I don't care about Geoff Bodine's little opinion," he said. "If my car is right, I'm out front and gone. If it's not, I do what I have to to get out front.

"When you beat 'em, somebody always hollers woof. Then everybody hollers woof."

At 34, Earnhardt is racing's lone wolf. He's not in the circle of NASCAR drivers who pal around during practice days at the track and after the races. If you see him, he's usually getting into his car or out of it -- all business.

He likes privacy. One thing he's doing with the millions he's won in Richard Childress' Wrangler Chevrolet over the last couple years is to enclose his 290-acre farm outside Charlotte, with a 6-foot, doubly electrified fence. He wants to keep in the deer, rabbits and quail, which he hunts, and keep out wild dogs and the rest of the uninvited world.

Antisocial? Maybe, but Earnhardt nonetheless has admirers, even among rivals. Mostly they are old-timers familiar with the eye-for-an-eye tradition of stock car racing as Earnhardt's daddy practiced it.

The legendary Junior Johnson, for example, now a NASCAR car-owner, says: "Earnhardt puts everyone on the defensive because of the way he drives. The drivers have a choice -- they can either compete with him or let him get away with it.

"If I was driving and he did what they say he does, I'd turn around and do it to him, only worse. Justice is done when you repay, and not until you do."

Or 30-year veteran Dave Marcis: "We had a problem back in 1979. He started it, I finished it. He's from the old school and I am, too. The old school taught you to take care of yourself.

"We have a lot of young drivers that never came from the short-track ranks. They think they can solve things by going to the media or to NASCAR. But when you have a problem, only two guys can settle it because only they know what really happened."

Undeterred by Danger

Elliott, Bodine, Waltrip and others see Earnhardt's game as intimidation. They drive differently when they see the man they call "Ironhead" rolling up in the rear-view mirror because they believe, as Bodine put it, that if Earnhardt can't get by you fair-and-square, "he'll hit you and go by."

The reason Earnhardt comes in first, Waltrip said, "is because, for the first time in racing, they've found a way to put the hood behind the wheel."

All of which, combined with the fact he quit school in ninth grade and lasted "about a day and a half" when he tried to work a day job at a mill, makes the swaggering, mustachioed Earnhardt sound more ominous than he appears in civilian life.

Over dinner here with his third wife, Teresa, and Childress, he spun amusing tales from his career with a natural storyteller's grace.

He has not, he admitted, had the best luck at Pocono, where he's never won.

In 1979, when he was rookie of the year on the circuit, he had the worst crash of his life here, ending up with a concussion, heart bruises, a broken collar bone and pelvis -- "all that good stuff."

He was out cold when they loaded him on a stretcher and into a helicopter so narrow his feet poked out one side and his head out the other.

"I woke up in the air and all I could see was wind and sky. That was the day they took me to Heaven."

The next year he crashed again, this time because his brakes blew out entering a turn, with driver Tim Richmond beside him. He slammed into the wall, taking Richmond with him, rolled the car several times and wound up upside-down with a broken leg and "battery acid running down my back."

Earnhardt dragged himself out of the car and to the wall, propped himself up and spied Richmond running at him full tilt, eyes ablaze and his helmet still on.

"I thought, 'Damn, here he comes to whip my butt, and I can't even defend myself.' "

Richmond was bringing the rescue squad, as it happened, and it may be symbolic that even with colleagues coming to his rescue, Earnhardt sees the enemy bearing down.

He's tough and wary, no doubt about it, with an image that may feed on itself.

At Talladega two years ago, a drive shaft came off a car in front of his, flew into the air and tore through his windshield at about 200 mph.

Earnhardt, who drives in an arrogant slouch with his head practically out the driver-side window, was spared instant death as the shaft shot past inches from his right shoulder. But flying glass splinters left tiny cuts on his face that he didn't feel.

When he roared into the pits his crew was agog to see his face streaked with blood. But all Earnhardt worried about was glass chips getting inside his goggles, and while the crew changed the windshield he taped down the goggles with duct tape.

"The TV and radio guys went nuts," said Earnhardt. "They said, 'He's taping up his face with gray tape! Talk about tough!' "

These are the tales that amuse Earnhardt, but he finds nothing funny about the brouhaha over his driving.

"I've had all that stuff up to here," he said, gesturing toward his hairline with a dinner fork. It'd tickle me to death to run the rest of the year without a scratch, but these other guys get alongside of you . . .

"I've seen guys trying to spin my dad out and they'd wreck theirselves," said Earnhardt, "and I've seen guys trying to spin me and they don't, either, and they run second.

"If I wanted to wreck someone, I could tell you what hole in the fence I was going to put 'em in. I do what I see fit when I'm on that track. It's reflexes and circumstances, whatever comes along.

"I'm a serious racer and I try to stay within the bounds. I don't do anything unjust. If beating 'em's unjust, they're just going to have to get beat."

If it's not, I do what I have to do . . ."

uses his No. 3 Wrangler to knock them out of the way.