Dale Jr. rescues racing when it needs it most

Big lift from Little E

Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2001

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped stock car racing get back on its feet in July with an emotional victory at Daytona International Speedway the same track where his father died five months earlier.

On Sunday, he helped America take a step toward recovery from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

His father, a seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, had a knack for theatrics. He drove from 18th place to Victory Lane in the final five laps of the Winston 500 a year ago at Talladega, Ala. He often created a lot of sparks both mechanically and emotionally with his last-lap antics.

What his son has managed in the past three months has been dramatic and necessary. Both victories have allowed people to forget their pain, even if for only a precious few seconds.

He traded the checkered flag for an American flag after Sunday's victory in the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at the Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway. He turned his red Chevrolet around and circled the mile-long track clockwise waving the flag as 140,000 fans mixed cheers with tears.

''We're all looking at each other for answers on what to do next, and what's tasteful and not tasteful,'' Earnhardt said after Sunday's win. ''So today was a good day. Today was a good day for the cause, for the support of America and its future plans, and definitely for NASCAR and for NASCAR's fans.''

The win at Daytona was one of the most emotional in the sport's history. It also created doubt by some critics who felt it was too good to be true. Racing needed Earnhardt to win that day because it helped the sport heal from his father's death.

''You hear a lot of things,'' he said. ''We won that race in Daytona, and I'm still bitter about the insinuations that we didn't win it legal. It was the biggest win in my career. I do think the fans believe.

''But (last Sunday), I'm really, really fortunate to be the guy. I'm glad we can perform under these circumstances. But no matter who would have won today, it would have been healing enough. It would have been the same emotion, the same support from the fans.''

Not really. Earnhardt already has endured enormous pain this year. His father was inches away from his rear bumper when his car suddenly veered off course and into the outside wall during the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Now the entire nation feels a different pain, a numbing agony of disbelief. Instead of sympathizing with Earnhardt, many now identify with him.

''You think about how this affects all sorts of people on different levels: the guy working in a cotton mill or the actress in Hollywood,'' he said of the attacks. ''It hits everybody the same. It was good to be back in the garage area, and it was good to be racing, but it's really difficult to pick up and carry on after something like that.''

What helped Earnhardt was a passenger named Wilson. A volleyball with a painted face, just like the one used in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, rode along with Earnhardt Jr. in his 400-mile journey.

''I thought (it) was a great movie and really summed up the feeling that I've had since February when I lost my father,'' he said. ''It's almost been like being on a deserted island. I'm just going to carry 'Wilson' with me next time, at least have some company.''

Actually, we all were along for the ride. At baseball fields, football stadiums, hockey rinks and race tracks, sports returned to business.

''You watch everything on TV the last couple of weeks, and you hear about everybody coming together,'' he said. ''You watch the sports news and the baseball games and everybody teary-eyed, and all the fans proud to be Americans, and it's cool to come here in our own little world and see the same thing. I'm really lucky and fortunate to be the guy to win the race.''

It's the only solution that made sense.

REACH Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.

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