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NASCAR returns to Daytona with heavy heart

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Fresh white paint covers the black mark on the Turn 4 wall where auto racing changed forever. Other scars won't disappear as quickly.

NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway this week, racing there for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

The tragedy changed the landscape of one of the fastest growing sports in America, bringing safety issues to the fore and depriving stock car racing of its best-known figure.

Earnhardt was the brooding specter in black, the brash bad boy who won seven Winston Cup championships and always demanded the attention of race fans at tracks and souvenir stands.

``There's nobody else like him and there probably won't be again,'' said Bill Rollins, a fan from Davie whose family visited the track to pay homage to The Intimidator.

Like thousands of others who enter the Daytona USA exhibit next to the track each week, Rollins took the eerie ride through Turn 4 on a tram that whizzes tourists around the speedway. Just as the tram zooms toward the spot of the crash, the radio broadcast of the end of the race is replayed.

``It sent chills down my spine,'' Rollins said, ``because of who he was, and what happened there.''

The drivers are likely to feel the same way when they make their first turns around the track Thursday, the first day of practice for Daytona's annual summertime race, the Pepsi 400.

``It's something we all have to work through and it's going to be the most difficult time we'll all have to go through,'' Dale Jarrett said. ``But we'll do it, and the good memories will be of the good races I had there with Dale.''

Facing other issues _ safety, and keeping fans interested despite the loss of one of the sport's biggest stars _ could prove even more difficult.

``As an organization, we need to make sure we weren't on the edge of a cliff'' the day Earnhardt died, NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

Slowly since then, NASCAR has become more aggressive in reacting to safety concerns.

It is in the middle of an investigation into Earnhardt's death, the results of which will be released in August. In the past, NASCAR often dealt with safety issues privately.

Another difference: When NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died in the months before Earnhardt's fatal crash, both cars were destroyed. But Earnhardt's car has been maintained so NASCAR and outside experts can determine what happened when his car slammed into the wall at about 150 mph.

Also, beginning this week, NASCAR will require a minimum 17-inch window opening on the driver's side. Teams have tinkered with the size of the opening to try to improve aerodynamics.

The decision is aimed at enabling drivers to climb out of cars while wearing bulky, protective restraining collars that some experts believe might have saved the lives of Earnhardt, Petty and Irwin.

Although the HANS device is not required by NASCAR, the majority of drivers are now wearing it. Fewer than 10 were wearing one during the race in which Earnhardt was killed.

NASCAR is also building a research and development shop in North Carolina.

``I've seen what they've done and it's impressive,'' driver Ken Schrader said. ``They're certainly not sitting back and doing nothing.''

Fans still seem to be enjoying the sport even without Earnhardt. TV ratings increased 29 percent in the first half of the season. Track officials in Daytona said ticket sales for the Pepsi 400 are ahead of last year's race, and they expect to sell out grandstand seats more quickly.

Still, there are concerns about attendance in the second half of the season, with Earnhardt gone.

``I'm still a race fan,'' David Schmidt of Tampa said at Daytona USA. ``But it probably won't ever feel the same coming back here.''
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