At Dover race, flags red, white and blue

Winston Cup returns, with patriotism high

Auto Racing

September 22, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - The garages at Dover Downs International Speedway were ablaze with patriotism yesterday, as the Winston Cup Series went back to work.

There were flags painted on car hoods, on the deck (trunk) lids, on lower-rear quarter panels, on door posts, and stars across rear bumpers.

And there was understanding in nearly every driver's heart, as they returned to work after NASCAR's decision to take last weekend off out of respect for the victims in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"I had a helpless feeling," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I don't like to compare it to losing my father - but I have an inkling, an idea of what those people, who so suddenly lost a cousin or brother or mother or a son, feel like."

Dale Jarrett had no sooner won the pole for tomorrow's MBNA Cal Ripken 400 here than he began talking about a new understanding of life and the values he has often taken for granted.

"When we're sitting in our cars for the start of this race and they play the national anthem, they better build a little extra time into the schedule before they say, `Gentlemen, start your engines,' " said Jarrett, who averaged 154.919 mph in his UPS Ford. "I assure you, there's probably not gonna be a dry eye around here.

"We take too many things for granted and because we've been so fortunate to live in the great nation that we do, these things have come so easy to us. Now, let's get back to where we understand why we play the national anthem and listen to the words about what it's all about."

What work was about yesterday was driving fast. Jarrett drove fastest. But Bobby Labonte, wearing an N.Y.P.D. hat, and his Pontiac weren't far behind. They claimed the outside spot on the front row with an average speed of 154.872 mph. Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet was third at 154.852 and Jarrett's teammate Ricky Rudd was fourth 154.792 mph.

And, normally, all of them would have been ecstatic about starting at the front of this field on Dover's high-banked, one-mile oval. Starting position here does matter some. Pit road is narrow, so drivers want spots that allow them the best entry and exit to their pit stall. And though Kyle Petty once won here with a provisional starting position, it isn't the norm and yesterday wasn't exactly business as usual either.

Driver Ward Burton, who, two weeks ago, might have been upset by a 25th-place qualifying run, took it calmly.

"I think everybody realizes racing is not quite as important as we think it is sometimes now," he said. "We get so engulfed in it. ... But look around. All these flags on the cars show a lot of patriotism."

Teams are still figuring out what they can do to help those impacted by the attacks. Earnhardt Jr., who lost his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, when he crashed into a wall at Daytona International Speedway in February, is one who seems among the most touched by the disasters.

"It was really hard sitting at home this past weekend and not be able to do anything," he said. "But coming back here has been good. ... My sister and I came up with an idea that we're going to donate $100 a lap and $10,000 for every pit stop under 14 seconds on Sunday. I asked Budweiser to match that and they are going to give me a call tomorrow and tell me what they are going to do. I really don't know how else to help."

While Earnhardt Jr. was looking beyond himself, Jarrett was taking stock of his own family. He said the time he was able to spend with his family last weekend was enlightening.

"I learned a lot about where my priorities are and should be," he said. "It gave me time to learn some things about my kids that maybe I should have known, but I haven't really seen that side of them, because, obviously, we hadn't been through anything like this.

"It reaffirmed my knowledge of just what a wonderful person my wife is and why our kids are the way they are. She does a terrific job there and she taught me a lot about putting things in perspective last week."

NOTES: NASCAR, which is still working on its safety approach after the deaths of four drivers in a nine-month period ending last February with the loss of Earnhardt, said it will test black box data recorders on six race cars over the weekend, including the Winston Cup cars of Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon. NASCAR director Gary Nelson said the accident data-recorders are being tested for durability and their ability to perform despite the high temperatures within the cars over a long race. ... Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken is expected here by 10 a.m. tomorrow and will accompany Labonte on a garage tour.

Dover weekend

What: NASCAR Winston Cup and support series

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

Schedule: Today: Winston Cup practice, 11:15 a.m. MBNA.Com 200 Busch Grand National race, 1 p.m. Tomorrow: MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, 1 p.m.

Tickets: Call 800-441-RACE (7223)

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