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Reminders of a legend

A team and a sport have carried on since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


DAYTONA BEACH -- There is a touch of black on the car Kevin Harvick drives in today's Daytona 500, as if NASCAR fans need a swatch of paint to remind them Harvick is driving Dale Earnhardt's old ride.

Who could forget?

Reminders of Earnhardt permeate Daytona International Speedway, where the seven-time Winston Cup champion perished when his black No. 3 Chevrolet careened into the wall coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

One year later, it still hurts.

But there is symmetry, and perhaps comfort, in seeing the first Daytona 500 in 23 years without Earnhardt begin today with a mostly silver -- but part black -- No. 29 on the first row, driven by a brash 26-year-old making his race debut.

Earnhardt's old car is NASCAR's future.

"Our sport is changing and Dale not being here is certainly a big change," said three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, a contemporary, adversary and friend to Earnhardt.

"But then you look at the young guys at the front of the field to start this year. Even though we don't have Dale and that's a downer, we have so much to look forward to. So much young, untapped talent is the exciting thing, and I think Dale would feel the same way."

Earnhardt won just about every kind of stock car race held at Daytona, finally adding the elusive 500 title in 1998. His 34 wins at Daytona are the most by any driver.

"You don't think about Daytona without thinking about Earnhardt," driver Jeff Burton said.

Certainly not this month.

Early in Speedweeks, a bronze statue of Earnhardt holding the Harley J. Earl trophy given to Daytona 500 winners was unveiled in front of Daytona USA, a motorsports attraction outside the frontstretch gates.

The first time Winston Cup cars raced, Tony Stewart held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Budweiser Shootout, just as he had the year before with Earnhardt Sr. on his bumper.

On Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver Michael Waltrip won his Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race, an event Earnhardt won a record 12 times, including 10 straight from 1990-99. Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500, crossing the finish line for his first points victory mere seconds after Earnhardt struck the wall.

"I know we'll move on and the sport will continue to grow, but in my mind, there's something missing," four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "I'll never forget the memories I have with Dale here at Daytona. There are things I'm doing out there today that I learned from him."

Earnhardt died in the first race of a season that brought phenomenal growth to NASCAR. A $2.4-billion network television deal reached a record number of fans, many of whom were drawn to the hip, young images of Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick.

"The Dale Earnhardt fans are still there rooting for Dale Jr. or Kevin Harvick," said Richard Childress, Earnhardt's car owner since 1984. "The race fans are still looking for that black 3, like I do every week. We miss him more every week, but we all know we have to go on."

Today, NASCAR will.

Rookie Jimmie Johnson, 26, is on the pole. Harvick is beside him. Earnhardt Jr., 27, starts fifth. The youth movement in Winston Cup racing is in full swing.

Last season, Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet was white, but far from innocent. Drawing comparisons to the Intimidator, Harvick ruffled feathers and fenders on his way to Rookie of the Year honors and a top-10 finish in the standings, despite running one race fewer than the rest of the competition. Missing from his season: the Daytona 500.

"There's a responsibility that comes with driving for this organization, let alone that Goodwrench car," said Harvick, who also won the 2001 Busch Grand National championship. "The past history of that car is obviously very deep -- it won championships, it won races. But there's nobody here and nobody coming that's going to replace Dale Earnhardt.

"You can't do it."

At every stop on the 2001 schedule, fans and tracks paid tribute to Earnhardt. When the series returned to Daytona in July, Earnhardt Jr. got the closure he sought in an emotional victory, parking his No. 8 Chevrolet on the tri-oval grass and climbing onto the roof to celebrate with fans in the grandstands.

Earnhardt Jr. also drove -- and won in -- the No. 3 in Saturday's season-opening Busch race, the first time the number had been used in NASCAR's top two series since his father's death.

While Earnhardt Jr. is at ease with his emotions, many are not. The start of today's race -- the first in 18 years without the black No. 3; his early cars were blue and yellow -- will be a sad reminder that Earnhardt is not here.

"This is the one-year anniversary; we get closer here with the 500," Darrell Waltrip said. "Hopefully, we can start telling Dale Earnhardt stories, the funny ones that we all remember. We've paid incredible tributes to him and done a lot of things for him. I know he'd be very pleased about that, but I also know he'd like for us to get on with it."

Veteran Rusty Wallace, a friend of Earnhardt, sees the long lines at souvenir trailers selling Earnhardt merchandise and fans holding three fingers aloft during Lap 3 of every event. He doubts the passion fans felt for Earnhardt ever will fade.

"I don't think this guy is like a normal guy," Wallace said. "He's like Elvis -- they still commemorate him, and here it is 25 years later. Dale is going to be no different. The tributes are going to go on and on, and there's nothing wrong with that."

Harvick, an intense competitor who knows the importance of focus in a car traveling 185 mph, thinks of Earnhardt every time he circles Daytona International Speedway.

Especially in Turn 4.

"The skid marks are still there going into the wall," Harvick said. "Every time you drive by those you think about it. You try and do everything you can to keep it off your mind, but it's something you can't escape. You just have to learn to cope with it as best you can."

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