There's nothing Ken Schrader can do to erase the image he has of seeing Dale Earnhardt dead in his car. But he has done something about how it affects him.
Unlike his fellow competitors, who didn't learn Earnhardt was dead until well after the accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Schrader knew how bad it was the moment he poked his head into the battered No. 3 car and saw his lifeless body.
''What I saw in the car that day, that will stay with you,'' Schrader said in his first extensive interview about the wreck. ''I saw a friend in trouble. I didn't know for certain (he was dead), but I would have bet. That sticks with you.''
Schrader was running in the top 10 that day, battling a pack of cars hot on Earnhardt's bumper when The Intimidator made contact with Sterling Marlin and his car went shooting up the high banking into the Turn 4 wall.
Schrader couldn't avoid hitting Earnhardt's car, tagging him in the passenger side. After the two cars slid down the track and onto the grass, Schrader climbed from his car and rushed over to check on his old friend.
Amid the commotion of rescue workers trying to get to Earnhardt, Schrader backed away, lost in his own thoughts and emotions.
''Out of compassion for his friend, he went to the car and I think maybe he saw more than what he bargained for,'' said Schrader's wife, Ann. ''But at the same time, he takes comfort in that one of the last people Dale might have seen and heard was Kenny, a friend who was there for him.''
Schrader's next thought was to go to Michael Waltrip, who was celebrating his first win in Victory Lane, unaware of Earnhardt's death.
On his way, Schrader was stopped by a TV crew and asked about Earnhardt. The emotion in his eyes was hidden behind sunglasses, but his face was pale and his voice shaky when he lied and said he didn't know.
Schrader later learned that interview was the first real sign to many viewers at home that Earnhardt might be dead. But it wasn't anything he said.
''I didn't think it was my place to tell the world,'' Schrader said. ''But anybody I've talked to before -- and I've even got a lot of e-mails from fans who know me only from watching me doing interviews -- they said they knew it was serious from that interview.''
Then he went to Victory Lane, where Waltrip wasn't expecting him. Hours before the race, Schrader had told Waltrip that if he won, he would go straight to Waltrip's motor home to get the celebration started.
Instead, he delivered the bad news to Waltrip, who had just won NASCAR's biggest race the first time in a car owned by Earnhardt.
''I didn't know what the final deal was, so I just told him it was big and Dale was in trouble,'' Schrader said. ''It was Mikey's biggest moment, and you're adding news that he doesn't want. But I knew he'd want to know.''
The hardest part was yet to come. Schrader had to talk to his 11-year-old daughter, a fan of The Intimidator and friend of Earnhardt's daughter, Taylor.
The summer before, Dorothy Schrader had spent a week with the Earnhardts on their yacht. Earnhardt later told Schrader how Dorothy had gotten homesick on the trip, and that he'd spent a night comforting her.
''Dale said he just had to get her up in his lap and just hug on her awhile until she got over it,'' Schrader said. ''So it was hard for her, she had a lot of questions and a lot of concern for Taylor.''
Schrader also had his own emotions to deal with. How would Earnhardt's death affect him? In the end, he decided it wasn't going to.
A racer through and through who spends his time away from Winston Cup at dirt tracks and other small circuits, Schrader had seen death before.
''He knows things can happen in a race car,'' Ann Schrader said. ''Because he's a racer, he has a very realistic attitude and has been able to cope with it.''
There were rumors at the next week's race that Schrader was going to quit, that what he had seen in Earnhardt's car -- which he won't discuss in detail -- was just too much to overcome. Schrader scoffs at talk of retirement.
''When I walked up to that car, I thought about a lot of things over the next couple of hours, and quitting was never on the list,'' he said.
Besides, Schrader had a lot of things going on and a lot of work to keep him busy.
A new teammate of Johnny Benson, Schrader has had to relocate his own shop during the season in the aftermath of the Earnhardt accident.
And after poor performances in Rockingham, N.C., and Las Vegas, Schrader had to make a difficult change on his team by firing crew chief Sammy Johns before last week's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Through it all, he's remained strong and spirited.
He looked completely at ease as he rode his bright yellow motorcycle through the infield at Atlanta and was confident when he climbed into his race car and drove it to a season-high eighth-place finish Sunday in the Cracker Barrel 500.
The strong run propelled him to 10th place in the standings prior to Sunday's race in Darlington, S.C., and did wonders for his psyche.
''He's been absolutely on cloud nine, just ecstatic,'' Ann Schrader said. ''All he's ever wanted to do was go fast, race well and be competitive. Kenny's always going to be doing that, even when he's gray and in a wheelchair.''
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End Adv for Thursday, March 15
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