DAYTONA, FEB. 16 -- The crowd at the Oyster Bar downtown was feeling no pain, and the spirits only improved when the big-screen replay of Friday's International Race of Champions focused on the man race fans love to hate, Dale Earnhardt.

When Earnhardt spun out on Lap 13, the crowd gave a whoop that grew to a happy roar as close-ups showed NASCAR's No. 1 driver slumped over the wheel on the infield grass, disconsolate and out of the running.

At 38, Earnhardt has won three of the last five NASCAR season titles and four overall, more than anyone but "the king," 53-year-old Richard Petty, who has seven. But Petty in his dotage remains the do-no-wrong darling of race fans, while folks have yet to warm even slightly to his rough-hewn successor.

"I just dislike the fellow," said 12-year-old Chris Flynn of Maryville, Tenn. "I don't care for his cocky attitude."

"I don't like Earnhardt," agreed Caroline Smith, who serves up the grits at Hampton's Restaurant near Daytona International Speedway, where Earnhardt is considered the man to beat in the 33d running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday (WUSA-TV-9, noon).

"He's arrogant, he's a dirty driver and I don't think his car is fair," Smith said. "He can drop down low anytime he wants and pass them all like they were standing still. NASCAR ought to take his car apart and check everything in it."

"I respect Dale," said Tinker Beck of High Point, N.C. "He can put a car where most people couldn't put a motorcycle. But I don't pull for him."

What does Earnhardt have to do to win the hearts of race fans? Last year he dominated the 500 here, winning 155 of 199 laps before cutting a tire on the last lap to limp home fifth. Those who saw it said it was a miracle he managed to get the car to the finish at all.

Earnhardt left the track after that bitter defeat in stock car racing's Super Bowl, an event he has yet to win, and headed for nearby Ponce de Leon Inlet, where he stayed out till 2 a.m. catching shrimp.

He went on to win nine of 29 races and $3 million in 1990, and often brought his two-year-old daughter, Taylor Nicole, to the winner's circle after victories and smothered her in fatherly kisses.

Winston Cup race director Dick Beaty says Earnhardt, son of a small-time dirt-track driver, indeed has "mellowed" over the last few years and no longer is the terror about whom rival driver Darrell Waltrip once said, "With Earnhardt, every lap is a controlled crash."

"I've seen him the last year go out of his way to avoid harassing other drivers," said Beaty.

"He'll rub you, now," said NASCAR official Chip Williams, "but spinning you out -- you just don't see it that much anymore."

Yet the image of Earnhardt as a ruthless, blackhearted demon who remorselessly puts rivals into the wall persists. "It's like Gaylord Perry," said Williams, calling up a baseball analogy. "Perry said he didn't throw a spitball the last 10 years he pitched, but every time he took the mound, everyone thought he was throwing it."

"I've been pretty rough in my time," Earnhardt conceded in an interview this week. "But if you don't learn, if you don't mature as you go, you don't go."

Richard Childress, the ex-racer who owns the Goodwrench Chevrolet that Earnhardt pilots, says his much-maligned driver indeed has matured.

"But he hasn't mellowed," said Childress. "He's just as aggressive as ever. He just got better at everything he does. As you get older, you find smoother ways of doing things."

Earnhardt was smooth last Sunday, when he shot from 14th place to first in two laps to win the Busch Clash finale. His subsequent victory in the 125-mile qualifier Thursday confirmed the readiness of his black No. 3 race car, which will start in the second row alongside Petty's STP Pontiac on Sunday, behind pole-sitter Davey Allison's Havoline Ford and Ernie Irvan's Chevrolet.

And he was smooth as silk today in winning his second straight Goody's 300 Grand National Race, outlasting Michael Waltrip and Allison to take the checkered flag by a car length.

With those successes behind them, Earnhardt and Childress say they aren't out to prove anything Sunday.

"It's not a revenge thing after last year," said Childress. "It's just one race in a long season. We're here to win the Winston Cup Championship. This is just the first race."

"Race fans are special," Earnhardt said today when asked about his curious relationship with the spectating crowd. "They like to see their guy win, but after a while, they want the underdog to win. It's probably wearing on them to see the black car keep winning.

"To tell the truth, I'd like to see Richard {Petty} win one more myself. Maybe if I see him coming up behind me on Turn 4 tomorrow," said Earnhardt with a mischievous grin, "I'll just pull over and let him by."

Earnhardt and other drivers are interested in seeing how NASCAR's new pit-stop rules play out Sunday. The organizing body banned pit crews from changing right-side tires during pit stops when the yellow caution flag is out.

Last November, a member of Bill Elliott's pit crew was killed in Atlanta when he was hit by an incoming race car during a mass pit stop under the yellow flag. This year, to keep scores of cars from pitting for tire changes whenever the yellow flag goes out, outside tire changes will be allowed only during green-flag laps.

Earnhardt's victory in today's 300-miler came after an accident-plagued first half of the 120-lap race. Eleven cars were lost to a fiery pileup started when Bobby Labonte spun out on the first lap, and five more went out in another eruption of flames on the 17th lap. No one was hurt.