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Earnhardt everywhere at Daytona

2/12/2002

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.

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."