Family, friends show support for Earnhardt's sister

Updated: March 25, 2007, 12:55 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Jimmy Elledge was sitting atop a large Gatorade cooler just outside the door of the No. 41 transporter Saturday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway, sun at his back, beautiful young daughter seated alongside. His demeanor was easy, reflective.

Kelley Earnhardt
Harold Hinson/AP PhotoThe prognosis is good for Kelley Earnhardt Elledge.
Not that he's an insensitive person by any means, but in this moment he was inordinately sensitive.

The previous 36 hours had been as taxing as any in his life. His grandmother, long stricken with lung cancer, passed away. And his wife, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, underwent surgery to remove what are believed to be benign tumors from her pancreas.

The term "tumor" incites the inevitable cancer scare.

But under the direction and impenetrable confidence of Charlotte Medical Center pancreatic specialist Dr. David Iannitti, Kelley emerged from surgery quite well.

"It was a long day, that's for sure," Jimmy said Saturday, arm draped around a daughter nestled in his armpit. "It makes you really put things in perspective. Like, a COT car won't turn? OK, is that really a big deal? It's not."

The surgery took more than three hours. Jimmy explained that a tumor had attached itself to a blood cell that had burst and enlarged to the point that it blocked a duct in Kelley's pancreas, causing pain attacks.

"[Iannitti] said he'd never seen anything like that in his 10 years and hundreds of surgeries, which ended up being a good thing because of what it was [compared to] what they thought it was," Jimmy said.

"The good thing is everything turned out fine and everything's going to be wonderful. The kids are going have their mom for a long, long time, and for me and Dale Jr., we get to be the fortunate ones to have somebody there to keep us in line."

Kelley is also Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sister, business manager and chief negotiator on his behalf in the ongoing renegotiation with the company their father founded, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Junior said Thursday negotiations would be put on hold until she recovers. Jimmy said she'll remain in the hospital for some five to seven days.

Kelley will begin the recovery process immediately, but Jimmy said it will be an extensive recovery period. He said she should be up and mobile Saturday, and the immediate focus is to ensure she doesn't contract pneumonia or blood clots. Kelley required no transfusion and her blood pressure remained stable, Jimmy said.

"This got really big because of the possibility of cancer, and having to have a cancerous operation," Jimmy said. "They handled it correctly. They had all the I's dotted and T's crossed, and the path to go in if it was this or that.

"It kind of was an unusual thing that happened and probably sparked the surgery to be more intense than what it needed to be. [Doctors] said going into it -- they have all the reasons why it's not a cyst, so it has to be a tumor, or mass.

"And in that, there's the possibility for a cancer-type cell, because it's a tumor. He said if I can't prove 100 percent that it's not [a tumor], I have to treat it as if it is."

Jimmy said the full pathology test is expected in about three days, and that Iannitti said he didn't feel there was any concern about cancer. Jimmy said the pathology test conducted on each section of Kelley's pancreas came back clean.

"It's been a long process without any conclusion to things," Jimmy said. "But when you get the word cancer in there, and pancreas, it becomes very scary."

Symptoms began in January, and worsened until the evening following the Nextel Cup event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kelley was admitted to Charlotte Medical Center and underwent extensive testing. A meeting with Iannitti this past Wednesday brought information that surgery was required, sooner rather than later.

"When we showed up he was laid out, organized, had all the answers," Jimmy said. "He said it's got to come out. OK, when? He said how about Friday. From there, things were happening."

Then Junior mentioned it Thursday during a press conference at Bristol Motor Speedway. Suddenly, all of NASCAR was concerned.

"Dale said it straight off the cuff, I'm sure," Jimmy said. "I don't think he meant to imply anything, but honestly I don't think anybody really understood the magnitude of this, or what the possibilities were, other than really myself and Kelley and her mom and the doctors.

"And Dale Jr., you know how he is, he's so nonchalant about things. He thinks it's a given that nothing's going to happen to her or him and any of us. I think he was more trying to divert the question about contracts than putting his sister in the spotlight of the thing.

"You'd hoped we could have gotten through this and talked about it after it happened, and it was close, but everything happened really fast. Unfortunately before then [the media] all heard about it. And that's not a bad thing. That's part of this life. When she has that last name and everybody knows who she is and [Junior], that's part of it. That's a good thing, too."

Jimmy said because of who Kelley is, and that people she affects, they got the extra support needed from folks like Rick Hendrick to ensure she'd come out of this OK. Hendrick helped find Kelley the best doctors to help with her care.

"We're very thankful for that," Jimmy said. "She's a very important part of my life, obviously, and my kids, and Dale's life. We need her. We need her healthy.

"It's something you just can't prepare for. When you sit back and think about it and think, 'Man, this could be a situation that you could lose your wife, you think about, OK, what is the magnitude of that?

"Selfishly it'd be a major, major incident for me. But for her, what is she not going to get to fulfill in her life? She's not going to get to see her kids go to prom or go to college or put makeup on with them, or whatever. Those are the things that really bothered me, was thinking about the things she wouldn't get to do that she wants to fulfill in her life if it turned out to be something bad."

Jimmy Elledge will be atop the No. 41 pit box for its Car of Tomorrow debut Sunday, courtesy of the brother-in-law's chopper.

"Dale had his helicopter pick me up [Saturday] morning at the house and come up here, and when I get done with practice I'm going to go home and go to the hospital and see how things are going there," he said. "I'll be back."

Marty Smith covers Nextel Cup racing for ESPN.com

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