For some, Daytona return a painful reminder

Tomorrow's Pepsi 400 Winston's 1st at track since Earnhardt died

July 06, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Nearly five months after the death of Dale Earnhardt, the Winston Cup Series has returned to Daytona International Speedway, where the seven-time champion died in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February.

Driving in, you can't miss the big black banners with the white No. 3 outlined in red hanging from the outside pillars of the race track grandstands. You also can't miss the Earnhardt stickers in the backs of car windows and on the bumpers.

But stock car drivers are a hardy bunch, and in the garage it seems almost like business as usual as these men prepare for tomorrow's Pepsi 400.

"I don't think coming in here stirs it all up again," said Jeff Burton, who drives the Roush No. 99 Ford. "When I came in the gate, I wasn't thinking this is the race track that killed Dale Earnhardt, that killed Neil Bonnett, that killed Robby Orr, or killed anyone who has died here. I just don't associate death with individual race tracks.

"We've had our period of grieving, or whatever you want to call it. We've been adjusting all along over these five or six months. We've been doing it. The fact we're back here doesn't churn it all up again, because everywhere we've been we've had to deal with it."

Rusty Wallace said he feels much the same, but after saying so he showed he is not totally emotion free.

"I did a TV show here this morning in which I drove the race car around the track," he said. "When we got to Turns 3 and 4, there were a lot of skid marks there and I remembered the melee. I remembered Earnhardt shot across the bow of my car and how I got through and finished third and he was dead."

And that made him recall other crashes, like the one at Talladega in 1993 in which he flipped 23 times and it was Earnhardt who thought Wallace was dead.

"He brought my gloves to me afterward," Wallace said. "He was really shaken. He had been talking to me on the radio, looking at the cars all lined up behind us ... the whole field came over the top of us and he couldn't make enough of a move to avoid me. He thought he killed me and it turned out to be no big deal. I sprained my wrist. And then - this. ... I guess it just shows when it's your time, it's your time."

All the philosophy in the world, however, can't mask all the pain. For some here, this weekend is extremely difficult.

On Wednesday, Michael Waltrip, who won this past Daytona 500, in a car owned by Earnhardt, his longtime friend, attended "Michael Waltrip Day." It is a celebration for the 500 winner the speedway traditionally holds the day after the race. It was postponed because of Earnhardt's death.

After seeing his winning car installed in Daytona USA, a museum and entertainment center, Waltrip told a group of reporters that it's been hard enjoying his only career victory after 462 races.

"My emotions kind of bounce all over the place on a day-to-day basis," he said. "For me to say I won't feel any special emotions or different emotions wouldn't be true."

Three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon has been thinking a lot about Earnhardt, too. But, Gordon said, that's not unusual.

"Every time I've ever come to Daytona, Dale was always the first guy on my mind," Gordon said. "He was good everywhere, but here, he was always the guy you had to beat. Now, we're still thinking and talking about him and I don't think that's a bad thing.

"But my heart goes out to Michael Waltrip. You've got to feel for that guy. He'd never won a race and then he finally wins the biggest race only to have his friend and car owner die. You just hope he can find a way to get the joy he should from that victory."

Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., like the rest of the people at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing, the team for which Earnhardt drove, were keeping low profiles yesterday.

Last week Childress asked the news media to keep a distance from him and his racing team members this weekend.

"I have said that we were going to treat this race just like any other since the Daytona 500," Childress said in a statement. "I now know that will not be possible. But as difficult as it's going to be, we know what we have to do."

Yesterday, Childress appeared at the retirement announcement for his longtime friend Dave Marcis, who at age 60 said he will wind up his career, which stretched over five decades, at the 2002 Daytona 500.

The media honored Childress' request and limited questions to his relationship with Marcis.

A lot has happened since Earnhardt died on Feb. 18.

The sport's popularity has grown, helped by additional attention from Earnhardt's death and the new television package debuted with Fox Sports in the first half of the season. TV ratings have jumped 29 percent since last year.

Fox color commentator and three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, Earnhardt's longtime rival and friend, is not here this weekend. But he said before leaving on a family trip to Europe that he felt both sorry that he couldn't be here to support his friends and glad to be so far away.

"Dale was and is like Muhammad Ali," Darrell said. "When Ali was young, he'd talk all the time and everyone would listen to him. Now, he walks into a room, says nothing at all and still has that undeniable presence. It's the same with Dale. He isn't here with us, but we're still listening to him."

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