The charred helmet and smoky race suit are packed in a cardboard box and stored in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s five-bedroom house outside Mooresville, N.C., family heirlooms now. One day, maybe in 35 or 40 years, Junior figures he'll pull out that gear, which he was wearing when he crashed during a warmup for an American Le Mans Series race in Sonoma, Calif., on July 18, and tell his grandchildren the story of how he might have died in a burst of flames.
"The heat got up to more than 1,000 degrees," Earnhardt recalled last Friday, as he lounged in his team's hauler at Talladega Superspeedway. "I was in the car for 14 seconds. I do feel that my dad was with me. I heard someone holler, 'Come on! Come on! Get out!' Yet nobody was there.... Now I've stashed away that helmet and uniform. It's time to move on."
On Sunday at Talladega--the biggest, fastest, rowdiest tri-oval in the world--Junior seized control of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, NASCAR's new playoff series. It wasn't easy, though. With five laps to go in the EA 500, Earnhardt was in 11th place. His Budweiser Chevy had been the class of the field for most of the race, but he had lost track position when he pitted on Lap 180, just moments before an accident brought out the caution flag.
When the race restarted, Junior shot through the 10 cars ahead of him, charging on the high and low lines around the 2.66-mile track. He was able to slingshot past Kevin Harvick and grab the lead with two laps left, drawing a roar from the sea of Earnhardt red--clad fans in the towering grandstands. Junior cruised to the checkered flag in a come-from-behind victory that was eerily similar to another Earnhardt win at Talladega on Oct. 15, 2000. That day Dale Sr. was trapped in 18th place with five laps to go, but he expertly rode the draft to his 76th victory--the last of his legendary career. Five months later he died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
In the days leading up to Sunday's race, the third of the 10 that make up the Chase, most of the drivers and crew chiefs fretted about two things: Earnhardt's dominance at Talladega (four wins and two seconds in his last six starts) and the Big One (NASCARspeak for the huge pileup that commonly occurs on a superspeedway and can take out as many as two dozen cars). Even Earnhardt spoke of wanting merely to "survive" Talladega and not get caught up in a championship-jeopardizing wreck.
"There's a lot more you can lose than gain at Talladega," said Elliott Sadler, who lost plenty on Sunday, when he bumped Ward Burton's car on the last lap, spun and barrel-rolled across the finish line to finish 22nd and drop from sixth to eighth in the Chase standings. "I think the Chase actually starts after [this race]. Now you kind of know who is a contender and who isn't."
There was no Big One, but the championship picture did, indeed, begin to come into focus. Wave goodbye to the title hopes of Jeremy Mayfield, who finished 38th and is buried in 10th place in the Chase. Jimmie Johnson has a big hole to dig out of after a failed engine caused him to finish 37th and drop to ninth in points. As it stands, four drivers--Earnhardt, Kurt Busch (who trails Earnhardt by 13 points), four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon (61 points behind) and Mark Martin (111)--have separated themselves from the rest of the Chase lineup. The one to beat, however, is Junior. (Though his use of a four-letter word during an exuberant postrace interview with NBC could cost him a 25-point penalty; NASCAR was expected to rule on the incident on Tuesday.) He has finished in the top three in three of his last four races and appears to have regained the get-the-hell-out-of-my-way determination that he lost after the crash in Sonoma.
"You lose your edge after a serious accident," says three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. "Every time you have a close call, you'll get a flashback. But the younger you are, the easier it is to come back."
It has been an arduous road back for Earnhardt, who turns 30 on Sunday. For the first month after the accident the second-degree burns on his legs made it a struggle for him to walk. (He also suffered second-degree burns on his neck.) Junior spent up to 12 hours a day lying on his living room couch with his feet elevated. His mother, Brenda Jackson, moved into his house and doted on him, serving him tomato soup, changing his bandages three times a day and helping him hobble to the bathtub to soak his tender skin.
He felt well enough to climb into his Chevy for the Siemens 300 in Loudon, N.H., on July 25, but lasted only 61 laps before the pain forced him to give way to a backup driver. The next week at Pocono, Junior completed 53 laps. His season appeared to be on the verge of collapse. But as his body healed, his performance improved. He won the Sharpie 500 at Bristol on Aug. 28, and since then Earnhardt and the Bud boys have been NASCAR's hottest team.
On Sunday, after parking in Victory Lane, Junior popped out of his window and pumped his fists for the crowd of 150,000. Talladega has long been considered the heart of NASCAR Nation, and the thunderous reaction to his victory reaffirmed his status as the sport's most popular driver. Why is Earnhardt so adored? He inherited his father's enormous fan base, of course, but he also walks the fine line between the old and new NASCAR legions more adroitly than any other driver. The older fans who followed Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough in the '60s and '70s admire Junior for being a blue-jeans-wearing good ol' boy who was raised as a hard-charging racer. Younger fans are drawn to Earnhardt because he's hip, wears his cap backward, and is personable and charming, as he showed in a 60 Minutes interview last week.
"It's gotten so crazy that I can't walk around the infield at Talladega without causing an uproar," he said last Friday. "But I like this place. It's been good to me."
With seven races left Earnhardt is in a place that seemed unthinkable just two months ago: the Chase driver's seat.