ATLANTA -- The findings of the investigation into Dale Earnhardt's death are certain to include a mountain of paperwork and even more guesswork.
NASCAR hopes, at long last, the report brings closure to a story that just won't go away.
The rest of the sport, however, hopes it's only the beginning.
From the moment Earnhardt's black Chevrolet slammed into the fourth-turn wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, the accident became something that's been far too consuming. Mistakes early in the investigation and the secrecy that followed have made matters worse. But the lack of sweeping changes addressing the kind of accidents that killed Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in a 10-month span has been negligent.
In April, NASCAR commissioned an outside investigation that was supposed to explore the various factors that led up to and contributed to the accident.
Now, four months later, the report is ready. Downtown Atlanta will become Ground Zero on Tuesday when we finally learn how, and perhaps why, Earnhardt died.
But is it enough?
''Nothing in that report can bring Dale Earnhardt back,'' driver Jeff Gordon said. ''To analyze things the way they've done does nothing for me. I think there's a lot of people who want answers. I'm not one of them.''
What Gordon wants, what the rest of the sport needs, is reaction to the findings. It's not enough to find causes. It's more important to find solutions. Otherwise, Earnhardt's death was in vain.
NASCAR has the very real opportunity to make revolutionary changes that can redeem its integrity and, most importantly, keep its stars alive.
Although aspects of the report have been leaked to the media and widely reported, it's not clear how the sanctioning body will respond to the findings. If cars are found to be too rigid in design, will NASCAR change the way they're built? If there aren't enough ''crush zones'' to absorb the energy of a crash, will they be mandated to cars of the future? And when? If the seatbelt broke as NASCAR claimed five days after the crash, will there be changes in the restraint system?
And if NASCAR doesn't have all the answers in the future, will it again turn to outside sources, including manufacturers and other racing series, for answers? If so, that alone might be the most prolific consequence of Earnhardt's tragic death.
Without question, the report must dwell on the future, not the past. It must provide direction. Otherwise, it's a waste of paper, time and, ultimately, lives.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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