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After Earnhardt crash, racing still reels

Halfway through the season, new winners have emerged and safety has become a top priority.

{AP photo]
Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 is the most significant story to come out of NASCAR in decades.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 21, 2001


The defining moment of the 2001 Winston Cup season lasted a split-second on Feb. 18.

NASCAR's marquee driver lost control of his No. 3 Chevrolet on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and crashed in the fourth turn at Daytona International Speedway.

Less than a mile later, Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line and won for the first time in 463 Winston Cup starts. But like much during first half of the season, Waltrip's emotional victory was overshadowed by the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

"We not only lost a father and a race car driver, we lost our leader," driver Jeff Burton said. "We lost a living legend. We lost our guidance."

NASCAR continues on though Earnhardt's legacy seems to permeate the sport.

While there have been new winners (Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Waltrip) and old faces (Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd) atop the championship standings, and a pair of television partners have lured more fans than ever to the small screen, NASCAR has been scrutinized by many for its operating procedures and reaction since February.

Though NASCAR is conducting its own investigation into four fatal accidents since May 2000, drivers and teams aren't waiting for word from the sanctioning body. They're embracing new safety devices, such as the HANS (head and neck support) and Hutchens devices, to prevent the fatal basal skull fractures that Earnhardt and three other NASCAR drivers sustained since May 2000. Testing continues on energy-absorbing bumpers and soft walls.

* * *

NASCAR's $2.4-billion television rights contract debuted magnificently thanks to Fox, FX and Fox Sports Net.

Fox won millions of new viewers with a talented broadcast team of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds in the booth, high-tech graphics, more noise, more cameras and interviews that addressed the pressing issues in the sport.

More than 278-million people watched Fox Sports' coverage of 14 Winston Cup races, more than double last year's total at the midway point. The average race broadcast reached 19.9-million viewers.

NBC and TNT took over at the Pepsi 400.

"Fox brought a lot to our sport the first half of this year," driver Kyle Petty said. "Just like CBS and ESPN got us to one level, Fox has taken us to another one."

Fox capitalized on an endless supply of compelling stories, beginning with the Daytona 500 and continuing the next week at North Carolina Speedway.

NASCAR officials announced at Rockingham that a separated left lap belt had been found in Earnhardt's car. They later said an investigation into the crash would be completed by August.

Earnhardt Jr. wrecked on the first lap of the Dura-Lube 400. Steve Park, his teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc., wound up winning the race.

"When you're working for Dale Earnhardt, it's not about running second," Park said. "You don't get a pat on the back for running second. You might get a pat on the back for winning a race. It's just the way he taught us."

Rookie Kevin Harvick filled in at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt's death and made an immediate impact.

Harvick won the Cracker Barrel 500 on March 11 at Atlanta Motor Speedway -- his third Winston Cup race -- by beating Gordon to the finish line by inches. Harvick won his second career victory in the inaugural Winston Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday.

The 25-year-old is seventh in the Winston Cup Series despite not racing in the Daytona 500. He also leads the Busch Grand National standings.

"Everyone has been saying I'm a flash in the pan," Harvick said. "Well, here's another one and we're going to keep at it."

* * *

Gordon, a three-time Winston Cup champion, has assumed Earnhardt's role as the face of NASCAR for mainstream fans.

It helps that he's tied with Jarrett atop the Winston Cup standings with Ricky Rudd 18 points behind.

"I just know that Dale Jarrett is going to be there at the end," Gordon said. "He's won a championship before and he's been a part of all that before. That whole team as a package has that experience. But Tony Stewart might go on a rampage. Rusty Wallace might go on a rampage.

"Who knows who will rise to the occasion and be there at the end of the season?"

With three victories and five poles already this season, Gordon became the first driver to win a race while wearing the HANS device, doing so in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 on March 4 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The HANS and Hutchens devices are designed to prevent the violent head-whip that causes basal skull fractures. Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper all sustained the injuries.

Six drivers wore the HANS device in the Daytona 500 compared with 33 who wore the HANS or Hutchens device in the Pepsi 400 on July 7.

Earnhardt Jr. won in NASCAR's return to the track where his father died, moving from seventh to first in the final six laps. Waltrip finished second.

It was a storybook ending that led conspiracy theorists to suggest the race was fixed. Earnhardt Jr. scoffed at the idea.

"For somebody to question its credibility, to question my credibility, I feel like that's a slap in my face, a slap in my father's face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury's face," he said. "I never drove harder in my life."

The second half could be even harder, at least physically, on drivers and teams. Twenty straight events close the season.

"I think it's a big grind," defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte said. "I was looking at my calendar over the weekend to try to figure out when to go do something. I don't think it's a big deal right now, but I think it will be toward the end of this stretch."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Plucked from the obscurity of the Busch Grand National Series to replace Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick has been spectacular with two wins in Winston Cup, where he ranks seventh in the standings despite having run one fewer race than his competitors.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Everybody knew Dodge would experience growing pains in its first season, but the manufacturer boasts just one driver in the top 10 (Sterling Marlin) and is winless. Petty Enterprises' efforts have been particularly dreadful. Only John Andretti ranks in the top 35.

BEST MOVE

In the first race at Daytona since his father's death, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from seventh to passing Johnny Benson with 41/2 laps remaining in the Pepsi 400 to win in storybook fashion. Junior's car was so dominant -- he led 116 of 160 laps -- and the story so good that conspiracy theorists wondered whether Oliver Stone had a hand in the script.

WORST MOVE

After being black-flagged in the Pepsi 400 for driving too low on the race track, Tony Stewart charged after Winston Cup competition director Gary Nelson following the race and then swiped a veteran reporter's tape recorder to the ground. The $10,000 fine and season-long probation levied by NASCAR isn't enough to teach this hot-headed talent some restraint (remember pit road at Bristol in March?). One only wonders how long Home Depot will put up with such actions.

WATCH OUT FOR

Ricky Rudd. He broke an 88-race winless streak at Pocono in June and is third in the standings driving the No. 28 Ford for Robert Yates Racing. A couple more victories and continued consistency will put the 44-year-old in serious contention for his first Winston Cup championship since he started racing in the series in 1975.

WHO WILL BE THE NEXT NEW WINNER THIS SEASON

Sterling Marlin. If Dodge is going to win a race this season, you have to believe Marlin will do it. Fifth in the points standings, Marlin has 5 top-fives, 10 top-10s and one pole position.

CLOSE, BUT ...

Johnny Benson is the only other driver besides Marlin and Bobby Labonte in the top 10 without a victory this season. Unfortunately, this veteran appears to be on the downslide after an impressive start to the season, including third at Texas. Benson has finished 20th or lower in five of the past seven races.

MOST INTERESTING STORY

Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February is the most significant story to come out of NASCAR in decades. NASCAR's discovery of a separated left lap belt. From the sanctioning body's secrecy about its investigation into the crash tothe court battle over the release of Earnhardt's autopsy photos, the push for a safer sport after four deaths in 10 months, the implementation of the HANS and Hutchens devices, energy-absorbing bumpers, the rush on Earnhardt merchandise, the grieving fans, this is an interesting story. But it's also one of the most important.

BEST RACE

The Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick fought through a bumper-to-bumper, five-car battle for almost 10 laps, then took the lead on a three-wide pass of Jerry Nadeau and Dale Jarrett. Then, Harvick held off Jeff Gordon and beat him to the finish line by .006 seconds, the edge of his front bumper.

WORST RACE

The Daytona 500 had 49 lead changes and all the excitement of Michael Waltrip winning his first race in 463 tries. But a fascinating story turned tragic when the biggest name in the sport -- Dale Earnhardt -- died on the last lap.

BEST UPCOMING STORIES

What will NASCAR reveal about its investigation into four drivers' deaths since May 2000?

What safety changes will come about as a result of the investigation?

Will NASCAR do away with the aerodynamic rules package it has used at Daytona and Talladega this season?

What does the 2002 schedule hold?

Can Kevin Harvick win the Winston Cup rookie of the year honors and the Busch Grand National championships?

Who will win the 2001 Winston Cup championship?

BEST QUOTE

"We not only lost a father and a race car driver, we lost our leader. We lost a living legend. We lost our guidance."

-- JEFF BURTON On the death of Dale Earnhardt

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