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Sorrow in mind, foot on the gas

Winston Cup gets back to business today, but thoughts of Dale Earnhardt are everywhere.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Rusty Wallace grieved all week.

"And I'm going to grieve for a long time," he said. "That's not going to stop."

In the days after Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Wallace was so distraught that thoughts of retirement crept through his mind.

"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it," Wallace said. "I don't need to race any longer. (My wife) Patti would probably be just as happy if I didn't race at all right now, but this is what I do for a living so I'm going to continue on."

As will 42 other drivers and an entire sport today at North Carolina Speedway.

It has been seven days since Earnhardt died when he crashed into the Turn4 wall at Daytona International Speedway. A broken left lap belt is believed to have contributed to a fatal skull fracture.

"We not only lost a father and a race car driver, we lost our leader," said Jeff Burton, who will start fifth in the Dura-Lube 400. "We lost a living legend. We lost our guidance."

The hurt might never completely heal.

But as it has done in similar situations, NASCAR's top act has moved forward to its next tour stop without its star attraction.

"Life is going to go on," said driver Jimmy Spencer, a close friend of Earnhardt's. "The grass has got to be mowed. You've got to go make money to pay your payroll. The sun is going to come up Sunday morning."

Jeff Gordon, one of Earnhardt's chief rivals the past decade, won the pole position Saturday and honored the driver by sporting an Earnhardt hat after.

"I never thought he would ever even retire," said Gordon, who edged Earnhardt for the 1995 Winston Cup championship. "I just thought I'd always be racing Dale Earnhardt and that black No. 3 car. ... It's not going to be the same, I can tell you that."

Some in the Winston Cup garage loved Earnhardt's desire and competitiveness. Others hated him for the same reasons.

But everybody respected him.

"If anybody says, "Oh, I loved racing Dale Earnhardt,' they're full of s---," Spencer said. "The truth is, they did not like that No. 3 car on that racetrack."

Earnhardt would have wanted them to press forward, drivers say, and entertain the crowd that bought tickets for the Dura-Lube 400. A national television audience also will watch to see how the sport responds.

"Life has to go on and we have to regain our focus," Burton said. "I almost cried the other day when I discovered there are 37 races left. I can't imagine that. ... I feel like this has been a year already."

Said Bobby Labonte: "You definitely talk to a few guys and just try to give each other support. They don't pat you on the back and tell you, "Good luck.' They pat you on the back and tell you, "Be careful.' "

Earnhardt's death will not be forgotten, not just for its significance, but because of the eyes it has opened regarding safety in the sport.

Two Winston Cup drivers, one Busch Grand National driver and one Craftsman Truck driver have died in the past 10 months. The same injury is to blame in every death -- basal skull fracture.

More and more drivers are beginning to take potentially life-saving actions to prevent the injury by wearing head and neck supports, six- and seven-point harnesses and safer seats.

"It's a shame it's going to take something like this to change our sport," driver Todd Bodine said.

Bodine, who used the six-point harness at Daytona, talked openly Friday about trying to form a safety committee among drivers. The committee would encourage more discussion with NASCAR about making the sport safer.

"We as drivers don't have a voice," Bodine said. "We need to start having a voice in what happens in what some of the rules are.

"There's a sense of immediacy; something needs to happen soon so that we can get some of these ideas out before another tragedy happens."

Burton, who has been one of the most outspoken in the garage about safety issues, believes drivers, car owners and NASCAR need to collaborate their research efforts.

And share the results.

"I don't want people to turn it into a NASCAR versus drivers situation because I don't think that's going to be it," Burton said. "I think we've got a community problem and we need to have a neighborhood meeting.

"I think NASCAR has to be a little more open to listening to us in a formal setting and I think we need to be willing to spend time, energy, effort and even money ... to make ourselves available."

The lone concern today will be making it through the race, continuing a process of moving forward from yet another tragedy in an inherently dangerous sport.

"Nobody makes us get in these things," Dale Jarrett said. "We do it by choice. We do this because we love to do it. ... This is for people that love this sport and Dale Earnhardt brought a lot of people to love this sport. Now we've got to find a way to keep those millions of people here excited. That's what we're going to try to do."

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