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Dura Lube 400 opening-lap crash by Earnhardt Jr. mars rain-delayed race

Monday, February 26, 2001

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- The car smacked the wall, and everyone gasped. The sound was nearly audible, even over the roar of 43 stock cars, even though it was spread out around the 1.017-mile track and throughout the infield at North Carolina Motor Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car is brought into the garage area after a first-lap crash. (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr. Post-Gazette)

Those who could bear to look inched closer to their television sets or strained to watch for movement between turns 3 and 4, where the mangled No. 8 car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. had, improbably enough, come to rest.

But not even watching Earnhardt Jr. limp away from a crash on the first lap of yesterday's Dura Lube 400 -- a crash eerily reminiscent of the one that killed his father on the last lap of last week's Daytona 500 -- could dispel the spooky aura that has permeated the track all weekend.

"We came here to win the race," car owner Richard Childress said after leaving the pit of his white No. 29 car, which is replacing Earnhardt's black No. 3. "But we just want to get it over with."

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NASCAR's nightmare, however, dragged on. Intermittent rainstorms -- and the lack of lights at the track -- forced the race to be postponed with 51 of 393 laps complete and Stacy Compton leading after a series of pit stops. It will be continued at 11 a.m. this morning ... without Earnhardt Jr., whose car was demolished.

"I might be a little bruised, but tell everybody back home I'm fine," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was really ready to go racing. We'll be all right.

Racing fans at Rockingham pay tribute to Dale Earnhardt by waving pennants at the start of the Dura Lube 400 yesterday. (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr. Post-Gazette)

Fine physically, Earnhardt Jr. meant. The limp when he got out of the car wasn't a limp at all, he said, simply a reaction to a slightly slippery track and being a bit bruised. "The lap belt," he explained, as if unmindful of reports that his father's had broken, "was a little too tight."

Listeners shivered.

The NASCAR community got less than 30 seconds of the normal racing action it craved before Earnhardt Jr.'s crash. The hours leading up to the race had been anything but typical, with the gloom in the garage area as obvious as the gray clouds overhead.

Fewer fans and corporate groups wandered through. Hardly anyone shouted. Fifteen minutes before the drivers' meeting, an ambulance pulled up next to Earnhardt Jr.'s transporter because a woman inside had gone into a diabetic seizure.

Crew members and drivers weren't dressed from head to toe in their sponsors' colors; nearly everyone paired their colorful uniforms with a black No. 3 Earnhardt hat identical to the one Jeff Gordon donned Saturday morning after winning the pole. Others lined up at Gordon's transporter to pick up black and red tribute ribbons that were fashioned by team manager Brian Whitesell's wife, Mary, who went through 50 yards of ribbon.

Then the rains came, delaying the race start for 1 hour, 33 minutes. Not until 2:17 p.m. did Fox commentator Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Winston Cup champion, begin his invocation: "Our hearts are hurting right now. We've lost a great friend, and it all seems so unfair."

During the national anthem, crews from the three Dale Earnhardt, Inc., teams lined up on top of the pit wall in Turn 1, holding over their heads the Earnhardt pennants distributed to all of the fans. Directly across from Earnhardt Jr.'s pit, fans in the grandstand displayed a bedsheet painted with a maple leaf: "Ottawa. #3 touched us all."

Max Helton, chaplain for Motor Racing Outreach ministries, prays with Earnhardt Jr. before the Dura Lube 400 yesterday. (V.W.H. Campbell, Jr. Post-Gazette)

Polesitter Gordon pulled back on the parade laps, a version of the "missing man" formation.

Then the green flag dropped, and all was normal, all too briefly. Less than a mile later, the back of the pack headed into Turn 3, and rookie Ron Hornaday Jr. tapped the back of Earnhardt Jr.'s car. Earnhardt Jr. slid up the track and into Kenny Wallace.

When both cars hit the wall, there wasn't a person at the track who didn't flash back seven days to Daytona, when Sterling Marlin tapped Earnhardt, who moved up the track and got smacked by Ken Schrader, who went into the wall with him.

Earnhardt Jr.,'s car was traveling far slower than his father's, but it hit the wall at an almost identical angle.

Said Childress, "I was just glad to see him get out of the car."

After being checked at the track's medical center, Earnhardt Jr. went directly to his garage, where a tow truck had woven through hordes of cameramen and reporters to deposit the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet in its stall. Even Richard Petty wandered by, although Earnhardt Jr. was oblivious as he stared at the crumpled right side of his car.

Later in the garage area, Bobby Labonte shuddered as he fielded questions on the accident. "I don't even want to talk about it. Definitely." Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate, Steve Park, shrugged helplessly. "I'm at a loss for words."

Even rival teams, car owner Robert Yates said, were rooting deep down for Earnhardt Jr. to come away from Rockingham with a win. What happened instead filled everyone with even more sadness.

"They just don't need that," team owner Ray Evernham said. "But he's very strong -- Dale Jr.'s got a lot of his dad in him. They'll be OK. But it's never going to be the same."

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