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Wreck, rain mark a sad return

From dawn to dusk, Winston Cup endures its first race post-Dale Earnhardt. It's not over.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- The only light in the smoke-filled campground came from a blue dumpster adorned with an illuminated No. 3.

The 4-foot tall number was a beacon wrapped in holiday lights, burning quietly moments before a rising sun peeked above the Sandhills of this rural North Carolina community.

Most everybody was still asleep at the start of the first Winston Cup race day since Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Jason Barbour, dressed in a Harley-Davidson jacket, abused Carhart jeans and muddied boots, was wide awake.

Along a dirt road littered with crushed beer cans, half-full bottles of Jim Beam and empty cigarette boxes, an intricately decorated black trailer was parked beside Highway 1, the two-lane road beside North Carolina Speedway.

The trailer's owner is a Ford man, which explains why former Ford drivers Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, who both died in 1993, are eulogized in airbrushed portraits on the side.

Barbour is a Chevy man, a Dale Earnhardt fan since he was 10 years old.

"It still don't seem real," he said, inching closer to a campfire he fueled with old 2x4s.

He didn't know whom to pull for during the Dura-Lube 400.

Maybe it would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 26-year-old son and namesake. It surely would not be Kevin Harvick, the 25-year-old, baby-faced blond who replaced Earnhardt in what is now the white No. 29.

"It's weird," Barbour said. "The folks that liked Earnhardt have lost somebody to pull for. And the folks that don't like him ain't got nobody to b---- about. It's sort of like everybody lost something, you know?"

* * *

Prerace chapel service is always crowded.

Sunday's started at 11:10 a.m. amid a crowd of drivers, wives, children and curious onlookers packed into garage stalls 44, 45, 46 and 47. Some were lucky enough to find a seat in the red and black folding chairs.

Dale Beaver, Motor Racing Outreach chaplain, stood after the opening hymn and read from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The passage mentioned comfort 10 times.

It is a familiar word these days, especially to those in the Winston Cup garage. But Beaver needed some in the worst way after Earnhardt's death, after delivering the eulogy at the memorial service on Thursday in Charlotte, after being the pillar of support for everybody else for seven days.

"I'm spent," he said. "I'm spent and I'm exhausted."

Beaver was hugged, kissed and thanked for 20 minutes after the service ended.

"It's times like this that you really develop bonds of trust," he said. "I think I feel more thankful."

* * *

Sterling Marlin, dressed in his silver driving suit and driving shoes, shook everybody's hand as he walked across the stage during driver introductions at 12:30 p.m.

As he was about to walk down the wooden steps and back through the puddles to the garage, he paused as if he left something on the other side of the stage.

Turned out it was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Marlin whirled around when the announcer introduced Earnhardt Jr.'s name. It was Marlin who unintentionally started the wreck that killed Earnhardt.

The slight bump to Earnhardt's back bumper set off a series of e-mailed death threats to Marlin in the days afterward. Earnhardt Jr. denounced the actions and cleared him of blame when he spoke during a news conference Friday.

That pause, that moment in the rain, and the moment Marlin hugged Earnhardt Jr. as they exited the stage was the heartfelt thank you.

* * *

The baby seat was black and, well, small.

But it became a flash point of tremendous frustration at the Simpson souvenir trailer when a Dale Earnhardt fan saw it and made a comment to Cherie Taylor.

"One person asked me if I guaranteed the product," said Taylor, who works at the trailer each race. "I said, 'I don't guarantee anything.' He said that he wouldn't put his kid in anything that had a Simpson belt on it."

Since NASCAR announced Friday that a broken left lap belt made by Simpson Performance Product Inc. might have contributed to Earnhardt's death, Taylor said she and her co-workers had been threatened by two or three Earnhardt fans a day.

All male. All wearing Earnhardt T-shirts.

"No, it doesn't surprise me," Taylor said. "When I heard it on the news, it was just a matter of time before we got attacked.

"Not literally, but verbally. That if it wasn't for that seat belt he'd be alive today and we should be ashamed of ourselves for selling Simpson products."

* * *

Rain delayed the start of the Dura-Lube 400 by 90 minutes, but Harvick stood alongside his new No. 29 Chevrolet with fiancee DeLana Linville well before the track was dry.

They will marry Wednesday in Las Vegas.

Circling above them was a bi-plane carrying a banner that read: "The Dale Earnhardt 500 at Daytona.com. ... Vote Now."

Harvick spotted the sign and pointed with his left index finger. He smiled.

Car owner Richard Childress joined the driver soon after and Harvick wrapped his right arm around Childress.

It was a touching moment, but only one of many before the race.

There was Darrell Waltrip's thoughtful invocation, Jeff Gordon dropping off the pole to honor Earnhardt and fans holding up Earnhardt pennants when the race started.

* * *

One turn from the completion of the first lap, Robby Gordon pulled in front of Earnhardt Jr. and ended a day that was supposed to heal.

Forced to slow to avoid hitting Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. was hit from behind by rookie Ron Hornaday and sent headfirst into the Turn3 wall.

"I was just ready to get back to racing," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But now I guess I'll just have to get ready for (Las Vegas Sunday). I want everybody back home to know we're feeling okay."

His crew was devastated, near tears as the men tried to repair the destroyed race car. The car was loaded into the trailer as Earnhardt Jr. snuck out a side door with three bodyguards and went back to his motor home.

"Dale Jr. and his father were closest on race day because Dale Jr. would sit in the motor coach and his dad would come by and pick him up and they'd go to the drivers' meeting," car chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. said. "They'd have their little father-son chats. That's kind of what he's missing today. But we're going to help him pick it up and carry on."

* * *

Rodney Wyatt took a week off from his landscaping job at Baltimore-Washington International Airport because he was so distraught over Earnhardt's death.

"This whole week has been like it's not real," the 41-year-old said. "I keep thinking one day I'm going to wake up and it's just going to be a dream."

Wyatt walked out of North Carolina Speedway when the Dura-Lube 400 was postponed after 52 laps. He had his head bowed and an Earnhardt seat cushion clutched in his right hand.

"It's not the same," Wyatt said. "I was sitting there the whole race ... it just ain't the same. I don't plan on coming back ever."

As Wyatt can attest, the first day without Dale Earnhardt in the lineup was different. Sadly, it might be that way for a long while.

"Earnhardt added a little bit of new excitement to the game," Wyatt said. "He was so much like a lot of us. He worked hard every day, just kind of an ordinary man. To come out here with a ninth-grade education and do what that man did was amazing."

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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