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Bond shared through late father, friend

Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are friends and teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc. who work together in memory of DEI's namesake.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2002

Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are friends and teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc. who work together in memory of DEI's namesake.

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip draw paychecks from the same organization, indicating the drivers have a working relationship. People call them teammates.

Their bond is much deeper.

It is a kinship.

When Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Waltrip and Junior became forever linked as they crossed the finish line first and second. Waltrip lost a dear friend; Junior lost his father. Now, they have each other.

"He likes spending time with me occasionally because it makes him feel closer to his dad, because we were friends," Waltrip said. "And in my case, it's not a whole lot different. It helps me to fill a void sometimes. I can't talk to Dale anymore, but Dale Jr. is so much like him that it's almost like talking to him."

Dominant at restrictor-plate races the past two seasons, the Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates are favorites for tonight's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. They are committed to working together to make sure a DEI car wins the race.

Because it helps the team.

Because it helps them.

Because it feels right.

Earnhardt Jr. is the defending winner, his victory a year ago in the first Winston Cup race at Daytona since his father's death triggering an emotional celebration in the frontstretch grass. Waltrip, who finished second protecting Junior's flank in the closing laps, joined him on the roof of the No.8 Chevrolet for an impromptu party.

"I know the commitment and the loyalty and the patience that he had to show in the Daytona 500 in 2001 when he and his father and I stuck together to make sure we won the race for DEI," said Waltrip, driver of the No.15. "I came back here in July and returned a push to him late in the race to assure that he would get to Victory Lane."

The same scenario unfolded at Talladega in April, when Earnhardt Jr. won and Waltrip finished second. Some accused Waltrip of not trying to win either race, but Waltrip said the aerodynamics of restrictor-plate racing make stepping out of line too risky.

"If anyone thinks you can win this race without help, they're off base," he said. "You've got to have a push. It's easy to say, 'Why didn't you pass him?' Well, if I knew for sure I could pass him and win the race at any of these races, I'd have done it. But I didn't see my car being better than his and I wasn't going to jeopardize the victory for DEI by taking a chance that I didn't feel would pay off."

Though separated by 12 years, Earnhardt and Waltrip were close friends away from the track. Each had young daughters and their families enjoyed spending time together horseback riding on Earnhardt's farm in North Carolina. Earnhardt Jr., nearly 12 years younger than Waltrip, envied his father's relationship with the fun-loving Waltrip.

"I felt like the son kind of hanging around and aggravating them, but it was pretty neat to hang out with Michael," said Earnhardt Jr., 27. "And then when they talked about him driving for us I was like, 'Wow, that would be great. We'll be teammates. We'll be just like buddies.'

"I've always wanted that relationship with Michael, to be friends and be able to hang out and do the things that him and Dad did together. So, it was pretty cool when we won that race together and how we've kind of teamed up over the past couple of restrictor-plate races to get to victory."

Waltrip, whose family gave him more in common with Earnhardt than Earnhardt Jr., dedicated bachelor, sees in the son many of the same qualities he liked so well in the father.

"I really like him a lot," said Waltrip, 39. "He's so much fun to be around. He's very entertaining and, if you know him, you know that he's very intelligent. He understands what's going on. I think he does a nice job of balancing fun with being the responsible representative of his family and our sport.

"I'm just real proud of him."

Earnhardt Jr., expected to contend for the Winston Cup championship this season, is a disappointing 16th in points, Talladega his only win. Waltrip, whose job was in jeopardy after a slow start, has moved up 10 places to 14th since finishing second at Talladega eight races ago.

Each believes he can win tonight.

"We almost get to the point sometimes where we vie over who should have won, who should have followed who," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But I feel like no matter what the feeling is going into the race, when it comes down to it, we've got each other's backs.

"If we don't do it for ourselves, we do it for Daddy."

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