Earnhardt everywhere at Daytona

Updated: February 12, 2002, 2:30 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The reminders of Dale Earnhardt are everywhere.

Driving up to the sprawling Daytona International Speedway, there's a pedestrian bridge dedicated in his name that spans the busiest street in town.

NASCAR Circus

Messages about missing No. 3 are spelled out on storefront marquees, displayed as decals on cars and pickup trucks, or even scrawled as graffiti on buildings.

And then there's the bronze, 9-foot statue of the NASCAR champion. Unveiled last Thursday, it depicts Earnhardt on the day in 1998 when he finally won the Daytona 500 after 19 frustrating years of competition.

A year ago at the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest star was killed in a last lap crash in the sport's biggest event.

Yet Earnhardt's presence is still strong in the days leading up to Sunday's race, as if he's still bumping, banging and intimidating his way around the 2½-mile oval.

"Every day I drive in the tunnel, I feel like I'm going to see him and he's going to come up to me and poke me hard in the ribs, like he always did," said longtime friend and rival Rusty Wallace.

Just a week before Earnhardt died, Tony Stewart beat the master at his own game. He won the 70-lap Budweiser Shootout by somehow keeping Earnhardt behind him on the final lap.

"That was the biggest thing that had ever happened in my life," Stewart said. "Seeing that black No. 3 in my mirror and beating him at his own game was incredible."

Stewart evoked vivid memories of that day last Sunday when he beat another Earnhardt in much the same way, holding off the red No. 8 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a last-lap Shootout duel.

"It was the same tricks his father tried to pull last year to get the lead," Stewart said.

Next up is the Thursday's Twin 125-mile qualifying races, an event in which the elder Earnhardt came up a winner 12 times in the past 18 years, including 10 in a row from 1990 through 1999.

"That's a lot of live up to," said Kevin Harvick, who was tapped by team owner Richard Childress to replace Earnhardt the week after last year's 500 and responded by winning two races, taking Rookie of the Year honors and finishing ninth in the points.

"I hope nobody expects me to win all of those in a row," Harvick said. "I'm not Dale Earnhardt."

Also among his record 33 total race victories in Daytona were six in the all-star IROC series that will race here Friday and 12 in the 300-mile Busch Series race that takes place the day before the 500.

A generation of drivers have battled, bristled and learned as Earnhardt has raced them as hard as he knew how.

"When I first came to Daytona, he started out as the guy I learned from and then he turned into the guy that I knew was going to be the toughest competition out here and a threat every time you came to Daytona," said two-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

"To me, it's not the same without him. I know we'll move on and the sport will continue to grow but, still, in my mind there's something missing."

In Gordon's first Daytona race in 1993, he got to the final lap trailing only Earnhardt.

"I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing or what I was going to do," he said, smiling. "It came down to the white flag and that's pretty much why I finished fifth that day. I learned a lot from him right then."

Some of Earnhardt's former competitors and old friends believe the first anniversary of his death is the time for closure, for the racing community and for the fans.

"Probably some fans came here to be here for this race because of Earnhardt's death. It's my hope that they see the race and see Dale Earnhardt Jr., or whoever their favorite is now, and get some closure," said Benny Parsons, who raced against Earnhardt for almost a decade and part of the NBC broadcast team for Sunday's telecast.

"As far as doing the TV show, we need to say something about it, and we will, but we need to focus in on what this year is all about," he said.

Three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, now a TV analyst for Fox, hopes the time for grief is over.

"I think we have closure here this week with the Daytona 500 and we can all starting telling Dale Earnhardt stories -- the funny ones that we all remember," he said. "We've paid incredible tributes to him, done a lot of things for his memory and I know he's be very pleased about that. But I also know he's like us to get on with it."

Bill France Jr., chairman of NASCAR and the son of the organization's founder, said there's no doubt that the memories of his longtime friend will be particularly strong through Sunday's race.

"I think there will be moments of deeper thought than usual," France said. "At the end of the day, life has to go on. And it will go on. But he'll be missed."


Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press

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