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Like father, like son: Earnhardt Jr. focused

As his dad did in 1994 after a pal died, the son races on at Daytona.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001


Six days after his best friend died in a 1994 crash at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt honored Neil Bonnett the only way he knew.

He went back to the track and raced.

"I grieved for Neil Bonnett more than anybody since my dad," Earnhardt said three months after his friend's crash. "But that's part of racing. He was doing what he wanted to do, and I'm doing what I want to do.

"There are dangers, and I accept that. People who say there have to be a bunch of regulations put on driving to make it safer, they don't understand the sport, they don't understand the men who do it."

His son carries a similar view into this weekend's Pepsi 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete on the track where his father became legendary and where his career ended on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February.

"This may sound strange or hard to believe, but I'm looking forward to racing at Daytona," Earnhardt Jr. said in a statement. "It's the greatest track we race at for all of its history and the fact it was really the first superspeedway of its kind. You just know it's special every time you get on the track."

The Pepsi 400 marks NASCAR's first return to the 2.5-mile track since Earnhardt lost control of his No. 3 Chevrolet and hit the Turn4 wall. He sustained a basal skull fracture, the type of head injury blamed for the deaths of three other NASCAR drivers since May 2000.

"I don't know how I will feel when I go through that tunnel (into the track) or how I will feel when I pull onto the track," said Earnhardt Jr., who will not conduct interviews this week. "I will just have to wait and see."

Employees at Richard Childress Racing, the team for which Earnhardt drove for 17 seasons, and fellow drivers are similarly unsure. "It's not going to be the same," driver Elliott Sadler said. "What's Daytona without Dale Earnhardt?"

Rookie Kevin Harvick, ninth in the standings, drives a white No. 29 Chevrolet that replaced the black No. 3 Earnhardt made famous.

"I have said that we were going to treat this race just like any other since the Daytona 500," Childress said. "I now know that will not be possible. But as difficult as it's going to be, we know it's what we have to do."

Earnhardt's death has refocused attention on safety issues and NASCAR's handling of driver deaths.

The sanctioning body's investigation into the crash isn't expected to be completed until next month. Officials have remained tight-lipped on specifics. NASCAR president Mike Helton told the Orlando Sentinel in a story published today that "54 different people (have been) involved in this study to date. That doesn't include the people who might have been interviewed or talked to beyond that."

The sanctioning body's chairman, Bill France Jr., insisted in an interview Monday with NBC's Brian Williams that NASCAR has not withheld information about the crash but that it could have done a better public relations job handling the aftermath.

"We have not lied, okay?" France Jr. said. "There's been some corrections. We may have made some comments that we have regretted, but it's never been the intention of lying, and it's all going to be on the table sometime in August. There are some things we have done in this investigation that if we had it to do over again, we would do it different."

Helton said Tuesday for the first time that NASCAR will investigate the four driver deaths since May 2000 because of apparent similarities. It was not clear how those investigations would be conducted.

Helton told the Sentinel that the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper have been "incorporated" with the investigation of Earnhardt's death "because of the type injuries ... how do you make the sport safer to maybe address those specific types of injuries?"

NASCAR on Tuesday ordered car modifications that make it easier for drivers to use head and neck restraint devices designed to prevent the violent whiplash that causes basal skull fractures.

NASCAR recommends the devices but does not require them.

The drivers' primary concern about wearing the devices has been the inability to quickly escape from a car in the event of a fire. NASCAR said Tuesday it is mandating a 17-inch window height, the first time it has instituted a specific window size.

"Prior to this, we just monitored the distance between certain roll cage bars inside the cars," NASCAR spokesman John Griffin told the Sentinel.

Seat design also has been studied intensively since Earnhardt's death. Team owner Cal Wells is developing a seat similar to the ones used in Indy-style cars.

February's race was one of Earnhardt Jr.'s best at Daytona, one of two tracks where NASCAR requires restrictor plates placed over the carburetors to slow cars.

Earnhardt Jr. started sixth, led 13 laps and finished second to Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip, who won his first career Winston Cup race. Earnhardt, in third place at the time of the crash, appeared to be protecting his drivers.

"Restrictor plate racing is my favorite because you are always two and three wide and the driver can really make a difference," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It takes a thinking driver to stay up front, and I like the chess game elements of it. You have to think one or two moves ahead to stay near the front."

Earnhardt widely was considered the best restrictor-plate driver on the circuit. Many even believed he had the uncanny ability to see air streaming off cars around him at tracks like Daytona, where aerodynamics and drafting play an important role and often can decide a race.

Earnhardt won a record 34 races in various classes at Daytona.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

PEPSI 400

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway (2.5 miles).

TV: Ch. 8.

2000 POLE WINNER: Dale Jarrett (187.547 mph).

2000 RACE WINNER: Jeff Burton.

TICKETS: (904) 253-7223 or www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com.

* * *

SCHEDULE

Thursday, 3:30-4:25 p.m.: NASCAR Goody's Dash practice.

4:30-6:30 p.m.: NASCAR Winston Cup practice.

8 p.m.: Qualifying for the Pepsi 400 (two laps, all positions).

Friday, 8-10 a.m.: NASCAR Goody's Dash practice.

Noon: Qualifying for the DAYTONAUSA.COM 150 (two laps, all positions).

3-4 p.m.: NASCAR Goody's Dash final practice.

6:30 p.m.: DAYTONAUSA.COM 150.

8-9 p.m.: NASCAR Winston Cup final practice.

Saturday, 8 p.m.: Pepsi 400 (160 laps, 400 miles).

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