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Earnhardt Jr. eliminated in an eerie crash

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Two races. Two laps. Two crashes involving two Earnhardts.

Seven days after his seven-time Winston Cup champion father died in a last-lap accident during the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in a strikingly similar accident on the first lap of the Dura-Lube 400 on Sunday at North Carolina Speedway.

The 26-year-old limped away from his destroyed race car.

"The lap belt was a little too tight," said Earnhardt Jr., who appeared to be joking. "So, I'm a little bruised up. We'll be okay."

Dr. Steve Bohannon, head of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, said Friday that Dale Earnhardt Sr. might have survived had a left lap belt not broken.

Earnhardt Jr.'s was one of six cars involved Sunday. He was the only driver officially out of the rain-plagued race, which was postponed after 52 laps and restarts at 11 a.m. today on FX. It began when Robby Gordon, who also triggered a 19-car pileup during the Daytona 500, pulled in front of Earnhardt Jr. in Turn3. Ron Hornaday then bumped Earnhardt, sending him head-on into the wall.

"It's just impatient people," said Tony Eury, crew chief for Earnhardt Jr. "A 400-lap race at Rockingham and they're going to try to win it on the first lap. When you qualify back there in the back with those kind of people that were around us, that's what is going to happen. The car's going to get wrecked and tore up."

Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace, Jimmy Spencer and Hut Stricklin also were involved.

"It was just like a traffic jam," said Kenny Wallace, who is officially listed as behind the wall but could return. "Everybody was wanting the bottom of the racetrack and everybody stacked up. I guess somebody got into the back of 'Little E' and then he got up into me and all hell broke loose."

The start was delayed 1 hour, 43 minutes by intermittent rain.

Jeff Gordon, who started on the pole, led the first 44 laps but will start second because Stacy Compton stayed on the track when leaders made pit stops.

"The first 50 or 60 laps are going to be interesting," Compton said.

GRIEVING PROCESS: If anybody can relate to what Richard Childress is feeling, it's Cal Wells. Now a two-car team owner in Winston Cup, Wells owned the car that CART driver Jeff Krosnoff was driving when he was killed in 1996 at Toronto.

A track worker also died.

"I'm impressed they're racing this weekend because I couldn't do it," Wells said. "We had Michigan the following weekend and we didn't go. We stayed home. It took us a week or two to get up the gumption to go.

"The knock-on effect of being an owner is huge. You have personal lives but you still have jobs you're responsible for, the community you're responsible for. There's a lot to it."

Wells said when his team returned, it was surreal: "It's also extremely challenging. You look down pit lane and you think you see Jeff. I don't anymore, but I did for years. That's a tough deal. There are still things nailed in a box up on a shelf in my emotional psyche that I haven't opened up."

REMEMBERING: Each driver and crew member donned an Earnhardt hat before and during the Dura-Lube 400. The hats were distributed by Richard Childress Racing, which owns Earnhardt's car.

Darrell Waltrip said a prerace prayer that was received with thunderous cheers:

"People ask us how we can go out and race today. We can do that first of all because we know that's what Dale would want us to do. Second of all, because we know he's in heaven with you. So let us turn our hearts from past history and let's celebrate the life of Dale Earnhardt, the great memories that we all have of him."

Race delayed

Sunday's Dura-Lube 400, postponed by rain, resumes at 11 a.m. today.

TV/RADIO: FX, WQYK-AM 1010.

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