Just starting race no minor feat

Updated: July 24, 2004, 4:16 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
On Sunday, for the first time in a week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will feel some comfort.

Seven days after suffering second-degree burns from crashing an endurance sports car in Sonoma, Calif., Junior will strap into the seat of his No. 8 Chevrolet stock car and take the green flag for the Siemens 300 at Loudon, N.H.

And though he isn't well enough to finish the race, he's eager to jump into the car and truly start the road to recovery. For him, morphine and pain killers won't do the trick. Working toward a title is the only remedy.

"It's painful to walk around," Junior said Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway, where he announced his plan to have Martin Truex Jr. qualify for him and take over as soon as possible in the race itself. "Actually, the most comfortable position for me was sitting in the race car."

Under the new points system, Junior could have sat this weekend out and still likely have found himself no more than 50 points out of first when the 10-race championship chase comes around in September.

The new system will limit the number of title contenders to the top 10 after 26 races and redistribute the points so that the difference between first and 10th is only 50 points going into Race 27 -- despite the likelihood of a 400-point difference between first and 10th going into Race 26.

Because of that points system, some at Dale Earnhardt Inc. were hopeful that Junior would sit out this weekend altogether.

But Junior spent the first two years of his career answering questions about why he wasn't a title contender and the next two years answering questions about coming up short after finally becoming a contender.

Now, he's sick of the questions. He wants a title. And new points system or old, he was always taught that every point counts. So he'll start Sunday's race, despite the pain and the bandages, and earn every point that he can since NASCAR's rules allow a fill-in driver's points to count for the driver who started.

"There were some people within the organization that had that opinion [that I should sit out]," Junior said. "But I just felt like I was capable of doing it. The situation isn't as extreme as that as far as the injuries. I can get in the car and I can go. So let's do it. What's the big deal?"

In his mind, the bigger deal is this: He currently sits second to Jimmie Johnson in the Nextel Cup points race, and there's a race to run on Sunday.

"I could sit out, but man, when that race starts, I'm going to be sitting there well capable of having started that car," he said.

"There's no reason why I shouldn't do what I'm capable of doing even if it's just to be able to get 75 points or whatever. Let's get that. I don't want to short-change ourselves and that's what we'd be doing if we didn't come here and try to do what we could do."

"He feels he can do it," DEI's Richie Gilmore added. "It's been his decision."

And when it comes to driving decisions, Junior can be as stubborn as his old man was. Apparently, when it comes to championship desires, he's got some similiarities with the old man, too.

To many not too familiar with NASCAR, Junior's start-and-switch manuever on Sunday sounds like a free ride. As if his taking a few laps and sitting out makes the points he'll collect for it undeserved.

What they don't understand is that driving a race car with any physical ailment isn't easy. Let alone one that makes you succeptible to high temperatures.

Junior's burns aren't healed. What is going to happen when the blisters start heating up? Some in the media made the mistake earlier of calling his burns minor. Second degree isn't minor. What he described on Friday didn't sound minor.

All I saw was fire. I didn't even see where to go to get out. I just got out somehow.
Earnhardt Jr. on his harrowing ordeal inside a burning Corvette race car last weekend

"The wreck was fiery and hot," he said. "The pain was intense. I remember everything about the wreck. I remember sliding and hitting and bursting into flames and climbing out and crawling away and getting up and getting put on a stretcher and going to the infield care center and getting Morphine ...

"When the car caught fire, as a lot of you might have seen, all I saw was fire. I didn't even see where to go to get out. I just got out somehow. But there was fire within the helmet and all around the visor so there wasn't even a thought to pull any type of lever to get [a fire extinguisher] going. I was just trying to find out how to get to where the fire wasn't."

The intense pain Junior described has subsided, but by no means passed. It's still there -- enough for the doctors to prescribe pain killers. But the only pain killer he wants is chasing a championship.

"I was on some pain killers earlier in the week," he said. "But to be able to race this weekend and know that I won't be affected by that stuff, I had to get off of them early in the middle of the week. So it's the price you pay. It's difficult to get a little sleep during the night, but it's worth it."

Junior's desire is apparent. Some questioned that earlier this week because of his very decision to get in a car on his weekend off and take an extra-curricular spin that put his title run in jeopardy. But seat time never hurts a racer; it only helps. And road racing experience will always be beneficial for a NASCAR driver.

Junior doesn't regret that decision, saying he'd do it again tomorrow. And he doesn't regret his decision to start Sunday's race. The only thing he regrets right now is that he won't be able to finish.

"I'm just disappointed really, because we've run so well here in the past," he said. "I was looking forward to coming here. It just really felt like we were closing in on getting a win here. We've gotten top fives and we've led a lot of laps in the last couple of races here. It's going to be hard just getting out of the car."

I can't imagine that, with the wounds still fresh and mental scarring still in formation, it could be that easy to get into the car in the first place. But that's a testament to Junior's desire. And a good sign for his title hopes down the road.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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