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Practice runs at Daytona International Speedway.

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2001

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The crowds around Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Richard Childress Racing arrived minutes after Dale Earnhardt

was pronounced dead Sunday night after the Daytona 500.

They've stacked flowers, candles, posters, cards and stuffed animals at the front gates and have maintained a sympathetic vigil for days.

There are no flowers or cards down the road at the front gates of Chip Ganassi Racing. The only thing out of the ordinary are armed guards with orders to allow only familiar faces on the grounds.

Death threats have turned a somber situation into a full-scale alert.

Ganassi driver Sterling Marlin has become the target of angry threats from racing fans who refuse to accept the last-lap crash as one of the ugly, unavoidable byproducts of racing. By venting anger at the man closest to Earnhardt when the crash started, it's easier to be distracted from the reality of Earnhardt's death.

''We got home Sunday night, and the first thing you go in and turn the news on and some reporter on TV is saying the vicious tap that I gave Dale Earnhardt sent him into the wall,'' Marlin said. ''You just want to climb right into the TV and pull the guy out of there.

''People heard that and said, 'Sterling did it.' Well, Sterling didn't do it.''

Even if Marlin knows he's not to blame for Earnhardt's death, he knows he forever will be haunted by what happened on the final lap of Sunday's Daytona 500.

Marlin never will know exactly what happened, or what he could have done differently. A greater mystery is how he will handle bumper-to-bumper traffic in the future.

Some have made such emotional recoveries in the past. Others haven't been as lucky.

Junior Johnson still talks about the day he bumped Ned Jarrett at Charlotte, N.C., in 1964 to trigger a crash along the backstretch. A car driven by legendary driver Fireball Roberts the Dale Earnhardt of his day then slammed into the pileup and burst into flames. Roberts died two months later of injuries sustained in that crash.

Johnson went on to win 13 races in 1965; Jarrett also won 13 races and the NASCAR championship.

Jocko Maggiacomo was the driver who slammed into Bobby Allison's car at Pocono, Pa., in 1988, nearly killing the popular driver and ending his career with an assortment of injuries, including brain damage.

Maggiacomo hasn't driven in a NASCAR race since.

Darrell Waltrip and Davey Allison bumped at Pocono in 1993, sending Allison's car barrel-rolling down the backstretch. Allison came away with an assortment of physical injuries, while Waltrip's might have been more emotional.

Waltrip never won another race after that crash. In fact, he was never competitive all the way up to his retirement at the end of last season.

Emotional scars also affect drivers who aren't in crashes.

Jimmy Means wasn't involved in the crash that killed J.D. McDuffie at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1991, but he was the first to rush to the car and find the driver dead behind the wheel. Means raced for another two years, never posting a top-five finish, before retiring to become a crew chief for a NASCAR Busch Series team.

Marlin will have to deal with his role in the crash that killed Earnhardt for the rest of his life. The first big step will be Sunday's Dura-Lube 400 at the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.

''I don't dread it,'' he said. ''Earnhardt wouldn't want that. He'd want everybody to go in there, fire them up and race your guts out for 400 miles, and the first one back wins.

''It would be good if we can go in there, win the race and dedicate it to him and his family. That's what we're going to set our sights on.''



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