DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The ride through the tunnel wasn't so tough for Rusty Wallace. The first lap around the racetrack was different.
For the first time since Dale Earnhardt died, Wallace and the rest of the NASCAR drivers returned to Daytona Beach on Thursday, each coming face to face with their own mortality in a sport with a preciously thin margin for error.
''I went into Turn 3 today, and it was like, 'I remember that melee,''' Wallace said. ''I was in the middle. Earnhardt shot across my bow. I got on through and said, 'Whoa, this is cool, the world just opened up.' I didn't know he had been killed in that corner.''
That was Feb. 18, in the last lap of the Daytona 500. As drivers return 4 1/2 months after the tragedy for the Pepsi 400, they come back to find a different track -- a different sport.
Most notably, they've lost their most colorful, independent character in a sport that has become more buttoned-down and businesslike as it has grown exponentially over the past decade.
They also lost the rival they respected the most, and one of the few athletes in any sport who simply couldn't be ignored.
''I used to go to the racetrack and say, 'How did Earnhardt qualify?''' Wallace said. ''I didn't ask who was on the pole. It was, 'How did Earnhardt qualify?' Now, I just go to the track and run.''
An afternoon thunderstorm scrubbed qualifying Thursday, meaning the drivers will come back at noon Friday to determine starting positions for Daytona's annual summertime race.
Of course, with everything happening at speeds reaching 190 mph, there will be very little time to reminisce or grow teary-eyed over the loss of an icon.
''It can be one hell of a wreck if your mind's wandering around out there,'' Wallace said.
He recalls being clipped by Earnhardt at the end of a 1993 race in Talladega. Wallace's car flipped 10 times. He woke up in a medical helicopter with an IV in his arm.
It was Earnhardt who emerged that day unscathed, thinking Wallace's injuries might have been fatal, and insisting on hand-delivering Wallace's racing gloves to him.
Like so many of his competitors, Wallace marvels at how innocent-looking Earnhardt's accident was. It was two cars, no rolls or spins, a split second that drastically changed the sport -- compared with his own 10 flips, and hundreds of other accidents over the years that have looked so much worse than Earnhardt's.
''I guess when it's time to go, it's time to go,'' Wallace said, shrugging.
With Earnhardt gone, officials at NASCAR and the tracks that stage these races have struggled with the question of how to honor Earnhardt without overdoing it.
Nowhere is that question more important than at Daytona.
Here, track officials chose to hang large, black banners with Earnhardt's trademark No. 3 on the outside of two towers on the north side of the track. The bottom of the banners reads ''In our hearts forever.''
When the race is over Saturday night, the traditional fireworks display will become an Earnhardt tribute, one of dozens the drivers have seen and heard as they've worked their way to the midpoint of the season.
Some drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., have grown a little tired of the routine. Others are more tolerant.
''It doesn't get old to me,'' Ward Burton said. ''Dale had been around a long time. He was the leader of the sport the last couple decades. Obviously, he was a big talent on the racetrack. We don't get tired of that. I know his fans are obviously still hurting and always will.''
For his part, Earnhardt Jr., has declined interviews this week, choosing instead to release a few prepared statements through his public relations staff.
Earnhardt Jr., was seen joking with NASCAR chairman Bill France outside the Winston Cup trailer Thursday, before ducking out and running to his own trailer, avoiding a hopeful rush of TV cameras and microphones.
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