Earnhardt Jr. delivers when it counts

Winning Ripken Jr. 400 is a fitting conclusion to emotional afternoon

September 24, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - When NASCAR or its fans or even the country needs a lift, it seems to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. who provides it.

Fighting his emotions, fighting back thoughts of life's parallels, the son of the late Dale Earnhardt dominated the start and the finish of the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400.

Only two months ago, when the Winston Cup Series returned to Daytona International Speedway after the death of Earnhardt Jr.'s father during the Daytona 500, he dominated the Pepsi 400 and celebrated with nearly 170,000 fans in need of some joy.

Yesterday, less than two weeks after terrorist attacks have left more than 6,000 presumed dead, it was again Earnhardt Jr. who took charge on an emotional afternoon, when the Winston Cup Series went back to work and its fans filled 140,000 seats at Dover Downs International Speedway.

Earnhardt, driving his Budweiser Chevrolet, which like Ripken's Orioles uniform bears the No. 8, beat Jerry Nadeau's Chevy to the finish line by 1.576 seconds and set off a huge, flag-waving celebration all around the racetrack.

While on his cool-down lap, Earnhardt called his pit crew on the two-way radio and asked for the big American flag he'd had earlier in the day.

He drove down pit road, picked up the flag, and, with it billowing out of his window like the battle flag of an avenging knight, he got back onto the track with a hard right and drove a reverse victory lap around the mile oval.

"You do a lot of things," he said. "You hear a lot of things. We won that race in Daytona - and I'm still bitter about the insinuations that we didn't win it legal. It was the biggest win in my career. I do think the fans believe.

"But today, I'm really, really fortunate to be the guy. I'm glad we can perform under these circumstances. But no matter who would have won today, it would have been healing enough. It would have been the same emotion, the same support from the fans."

It had been a good race. Earnhardt dominated early, and then Ricky Rudd, who finished third, controlled the middle miles, as Earnhardt's team sorted out its driver's handling problems.

Rudd, coming into yesterday's race 222 points behind points leader Jeff Gordon, figured he could outdistance Gordon to win his first Winston Cup championship by making up just 23 points a race in the final 10 races.

Yesterday, he had a chance to beat that average. Rudd was leading with 56 laps to go when Rusty Wallace bumped his car and sent it spinning. It would have irked Rudd on any day, but on this day it was particularly hard to take. At the time, Rudd had a large lead, was in control and Gordon - perhaps the luckiest man on the track as he avoided four accidents right in front of him - was running fifth.

At the end of the day, Rudd gained just 10 points. If the race had finished as it was running before Rudd's mishap, it would have meant an additional 15 points.

"We got damaged when that rubber-head Wallace hit us," Rudd said after climbing from his car, just before storming into his team's truck. He did not reappear.

"I felt for him really bad," said Earnhardt. "Ricky raced my dad for a long time, and he used to come over to the lake house. I've just looked up to him all the years I was growing up. And I think today I was rooting for him as much as I was for myself.

"I've never been in the situation of getting spun out when I've been leading. But whoever done it to him basically cost him the race. I don't know if I could have caught him and passed him if that hadn't happened and we hadn't gotten the benefit of the resulting pit stop."

Wallace, the one who "done it," wasn't apologizing. He said he was simply holding his ground.

"Ricky ran in to me on the back straightaway," said Wallace, who finished 11th. "I just stood on the gas and we got into each other in four and he spun out. His memory is pretty short, I'll tell you that."

But controversy was not what yesterday's race was about.

It was about giving and Earnhardt, who pledged $100 a lap and $10,000 for every pit stop under 14 seconds, was among the most generous in words and deeds.

"What happened on the 11th hits home," he said. "You think how it affects people and it doesn't matter if you work in a cotton mill or whether you're an actress in Hollywood. It hits everyone the same.

"It was good to be here and be racing. It was neat to hear Lee Greenwood sing `God Bless the USA' and see the fans' reaction. You watch television, and you hear about everyone coming together. You saw the baseball fans and how proud they were when their sport resumed. It was cool to come to Dover and be in our little world and see our fans. It was a good day for America and its future plans."

Earnhardt averaged 101.559 mph and won $168,858. His donations to help the families in New York and Washington will total at least $75,000.

Auto racing

NASCAR

MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 At Dover, Del. 1. (3) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 400 laps, 101.559 mph, $168,858.

2. (41) Jerry Nadeau, Chevrolet, 400, $106,960.

3. (4) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 400, $117,507.

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