Five months after the death of his father at Daytona, Dale
Earnhardt Jr. returned in triumph
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to Daytona International Speedway for
last Saturday's Pepsi 400 gave armchair shrinks everywhere cause
to dust off their Psych 101 books and locate the chapter on
catharsis. Of all the places on the 2.5-mile tri-oval to make a
move, Earnhardt chose the same piece of asphalt where his father
had been killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 five months
ago--the short stretch between Turns 3 and 4--to storm ahead of
Johnny Benson with about 12.5 miles to go and take a lead he
The death of the elder Earnhardt and the ongoing brouhaha
surrounding NASCAR's investigation of the crash--including the
legal wrangling between the family and news organizations over
the release of the autopsy photos, which the Earnhardts are
trying to block--had not only cast a pall over the first half of
the racing season but also sent 26-year-old Dale Jr. into a
tailspin. Junior had finished second in the Daytona 500, but by
late March he had fallen to 26th in the standings.
Returning to the scene of the accident clearly seemed to make
Junior uncomfortable. At Daytona he and his crew tried especially
hard to stay focused on the task at hand. "He won't talk to the
media about it," said Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's car chief and
his cousin. "He won't talk personally about it."
Come race day, however, Earnhardt dominated. He led for 108 of
the first 145 laps and, as Benson said, "We were just racing for
second." But shortly after the final round of green-flag pit
stops had begun with 17 laps left, trouble occurred. Kurt Busch
and Mike Skinner made contact coming out of Turn 4. A 12-car
wreck ensued, bringing out a caution flag that allowed the
drivers who had already pitted to catch those who
hadn't--including Junior. After pitting under the yellow,
Earnhardt returned to the track in seventh place. Another caution
set up a six-lap shootout. Just before the green flag fell, Tony
Eury Sr., Earnhardt's crew chief, said he didn't think Junior had
time to pick his way through traffic. Earnhardt needed less than
two laps to prove his uncle wrong.
As Earnhardt moved in front, teammate Michael Waltrip settled in
behind him, reversing the roles the two had played in February,
when Waltrip had won the Daytona 500 with Junior running
interference. "I wanted Dale Jr. to win so bad," Waltrip said.
"And I wanted to be part of it. I didn't want to finish 10th or
12th. I was committed to Dale Jr. just like he was to me in
The race was the first broadcast by NBC this year, and network
executives had asked team p.r. representatives to make sure
drivers showed plenty of emotion after getting out of their cars.
Their request turned out to be unnecessary. After doing a few
donuts on the infield grass--the same way his father had after
winning the Daytona 500 for the first time, in his 20th attempt,
in 1998--Junior hopped on the roof of his Chevy. Shortly
thereafter, Waltrip joined him in the infield, and the two
embraced. Crewmen from a host of teams mobbed them, their joy a
sign not only of how much respect the Earnhardt name carries but
also of how much they all realized what a sorely needed shot in
the arm Junior's win gave their sport.
"I don't know how to put it in words," said Eury Jr. "Dale was
like a dad to me and to several other people on the team, and
this puts a little bit of closure on what happened."
The victory also had a quantifiable effect. After his
post-Daytona slump, Dale Jr. began to bounce back in April, and
last Saturday's win lifted him to ninth in the Winston Cup
standings. However, just as he didn't want to spend too much time
last week dwelling on the past, Junior didn't want to spend too
much of his Saturday night pondering the future. All that
mattered to him was the sweetness of the present. "Shoot, I don't
really care what happens after this," he said. "It doesn't get
any better than this."
Richard Childress will add a third car to his stable next year,
and team sources say he will announce this week that it will be
driven by defending Busch Series champ Jeff Green. The car, which
will carry number 30 and be sponsored by AOL, had been intended
for Kevin Harvick, but Harvick will stay with the ride he took
over upon Dale Earnhardt's death.... Dave Marcis, 60, who is in
his fifth decade of driving in his signature wing-tip shoes, will
retire after next year's Daytona 500.