INDIANAPOLIS - Limping with his painful burns, burdened with emotional conflicts over family and team, Dale Earnhardt Jr. carries the weight of his world into today's Brickyard 400.
Yesterday, he tried to stem rumors of a rift among his stepmother, his real mother and himself.
In subdued ambiguities he spoke of a troubled team in free fall from its championship form of early season, run by an uncle and a cousin he said he wouldn't abandon for all the trophies in the world. This, though championships have seemed to be an obsession in the Earnhardt family; his late father won a NASCAR-record tying seven.
Softly yet graphically he described the burns on his left leg that have not healed according to medical prognosis, leaving his every step agony. Driving is easy compared with walking, he said.
But what hurt him most was admitting that last week he gave over to a relief driver in mid-race, not because of the pain from his injuries, but "because I could."
He said he was fed up with an ill-prepared, fitfully handling car from which "parts and pieces were falling off," and decided enough was enough.
"We have a driver who's trying to get right," he said, "and a team that's not right."
Yet of his crew's two chiefs, Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., he said, "I really don't know what it would be like to go to a race with anybody but them. I don't know if I'd want to, really. They're family. ... How much I care about them overrides the worst season you could have. ... It's more important than any championship."
Yesterday, he qualified fifth in a Chevrolet radically redesigned from what he's been driving, and tried to show enthusiasm for it. But somehow it didn't seem to help his mood.
Words came easiest to him in describing what it was like inside the cloud of fire that blew his world open for all to see, though he said the "slow progression to our demise" had started weeks before that.
Sheer love of racing kept Earnhardt from relaxing on a rare Sunday off from the NASCAR tour on July 18. He agreed to drive in an American Le Mans Series sports car race in Sonoma, Calif. During that morning's pre-race practice, his prototype Corvette spun, slammed into a retaining wall and burst into flames.
The video went like wildfire across American television channels, showing the fire engulfing him in his uniform and helmet, which protected him from far worse injury but left him with second-degree burns on his chin, neck and legs.
Contrary to some reports, Earnhardt said he wasn't knocked unconscious. "Maybe `disoriented' might be a good word for it," he said yesterday. "One of the things that often happens when a driver wrecks a car is that you find yourself being disappointed over the wreck ... I didn't expect the car to burst into flames like it did, and so I was just sitting there, disappointed because I had just ruined the weekend for everybody.
"When the car burst into flames, it was kind of a surreal moment; I couldn't believe I was sitting in a ball of fire. So there was about three seconds of, `What the hell do I do now?' "
He dragged himself out and got immediate assistance from rescue workers.
But that was just the beginning of this ordeal.
Dale Earnhardt's widow, third wife Teresa Earnhardt, is Dale Jr.'s stepmother. But in such times of pain only a real mother will do, even as a son approaches age 30, and so Brenda Jackson, Dale Earnhardt's second wife, came to her son's side.
When Dale Jr. began flying to races on the private jets of other drivers - first Matt Kenseth, then Tony Stewart - "Everybody thought that for some reason my stepmother didn't want my mother flying on the company plane," Earnhardt said.
"Teresa wouldn't be like that," he continued. "She knows that I needed my mom to help me with my [bandages] and stuff."
Since his injury, yielding to relief drivers the past two races, he has dropped from a close second to points leader Jimmie Johnson to third behind Jeff Gordon.
But, "I don't think our slump started two weeks ago," he said. "It's been a lot longer than that. It's been eight or 10 weeks ago. I can't pinpoint it. That's the frustration of it."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
What: NASCAR Nextel Cup Brickyard 400
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
When: Today, 2:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
At Indianapolis Lap length: 2.5 miles (Car number in parentheses)
1. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, 186.293 mph.
2. (0) Ward Burton, Chevy, 185.391 mph.
3. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 185.162 mph.
4. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 184.976 mph.
5. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 184.968 mph.
6. (25) Brian Vickers, Chevy, 184.665 mph.
7. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 184.332 mph.
8. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 184.222 mph.
9. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 184.090 mph.
10. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 183.959 mph.
11. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 183.910 mph.
12. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 183.842 mph.
13. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 183.576 mph.
14. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, 183.557 mph.
15. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, 183.512 mph.