The company that carries Dale Earnhardt's name is unbeaten on the NASCAR circuit this season. Sadly, the mentor wasn't around to see another of his students lock up the team's second win in as many races.
''It was emotional,'' Steve Park said Monday afternoon, standing in Victory Lane at The Rock. ''I had tears coming down the last couple of laps.
''But then I had to kind of wipe my nose and get back up on the steering wheel,'' he added, '''cause that's what Dale would have wanted me to do.''
That has become the mantra for an entire sport, the reason NASCAR officials and drivers went directly from Earnhardt's memorial service in Charlotte to the garages at the North Carolina Speedway, some two hours to the east. A return to the familiar rhythms of work, a chance to climb back into their cars and try to impose order on the chaotic world of speed -- ''That,'' they all said, ''is what Dale would have wanted us to do.''
The opposite appeared to be true about the Dura Lube 400, the first NASCAR event in two decades to go off without Earnhardt in the field. A first-lap crash wrecked Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car and sent a shiver through the sporting world not long before a rainstorm Sunday forced officials to put off the finish until the next day. That ensured there would be no Earnhardt running in the race, period.
Before he died in a last-lap crash at Daytona nine days ago, Earnhardt had already grudgingly made preparations for the conclusion of his own driving career. Four years ago he started Dale Earnhardt Inc., envisioning DEI as a way to stay close to the sport while guaranteeing his kids, Dale Jr. and Kerry, a well-funded team to support their own racing careers. But as in everything the 49-year-old Earnhardt ever did, his competitive instincts took over.
He signed an extension during the offseason to continue driving for the team owned by lifelong friend Richard Childress, but that didn't stop Earnhardt from securing the same kind of quality equipment and crew members for DEI. And when he went out to hire drivers, he wasn't prepared to lower the standard, either.
''When you're associated with Dale Earnhardt,'' Park said, ''it's not about running second. You do not get a pat on the back for running second.''
Michael Waltrip hadn't won in 15 years and 462 races on the NASCAR circuit, but he won the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500, in his first race for DEI. Park caught Earnhardt's eye with an impressive performance in a minor-league race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., but what cinched his hiring was a 20 percent winning rate with hopelessly outdated machines.
''If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be desire,'' Park said. ''He knew if he could put the right people and equipment in place, I had the desire. That was very important to him.
''He hired Michael and I,'' Park added, ''but he produced Dale.''
One version of the events surrounding Earnhardt's death at Daytona suggests he was running interference for his son, who finished second, and Waltrip once he realized he couldn't win himself. But those who knew Earnhardt best found it hard to imagine him doing anything besides trying to hang onto third place -- by his fingernails if need be.
On the last turn of the last lap of Monday's race, Park was running out of gas and struggling to hold off defending race winner and reigning Winston Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte. They began battling each other heading into the first turn and it took all the wiles Park had gleaned from his time with Earnhardt to hold off the more experienced Labonte.
By the time Labonte took his final shot in turn 4, only inches separated the front left fender of his Pontiac from the right rear wheel of Park's Chevrolet. It had turned into a game of ''Chicken.''
''We got together off turn 4 and I brushed the wall with the right rear of my car,'' said Labonte, who backed off and finished second. ''If I'd been further up beside him, I might have stayed in it.''
But a moment later, he acknowledged, ''If I'd stayed there, both of us would have wrecked.''
Someone asked Park what would have happened if The Intimidator had been behind him instead of Labonte.
Park didn't hesitate.
''There would have been one hell of a wreck,'' he said.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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