Racing world grinds to a halt following Earnhardt's death

Monday, February 19th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

NASCAR wanted close.

What it got was too close.

Late Sunday night, a flag flew at half-staff in the infield at the Daytona 500. For 199 laps, the Great American Race was just that. In the blink of an eye, it became a great American tragedy.

Dale Earnhardt is dead, two months shy of his 50th birthday.

The driver who defined NASCAR was killed when his black No. 3 Chevrolet grazed Sterling Marlin's car on the final turn and crashed head-on into a concrete wall. His car was going 180 mph. A quarter-mile up the track, Michael Waltrip, the driver Earnhardt thought of as a younger brother, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., were finishing 1-2, in cars owned by the Dale Earnhardt Inc. racing team.

What should have been one of his most satisfying moments in racing - and there were dozens - turned out to be his last.

Terrible as the toll is already, the sport may have lost more than its biggest star.

This Daytona 500 was going to be the race that sold NASCAR to mainstream America. Now, those plans for empire-building have been put on hold.

``It's always tragic, but this is our main guy,'' said Ed Clark, president of the Atlanta Motor Speedway. ``Today when they introduced him, he got the biggest applause there. He's the man, he is NASCAR Winston Cup racing. We haven't had something like this happen.''

With this race, the stock-car circuit ushered in a new TV deal and welcomed back an old friend. The Sunday afternoon telecast marked NASCAR's debut on Fox Sports, the season opener of a six-year, $2-billion-plus rights package that includes telecasts on NBC and TBS. After a 16-year absence from the stock-car circuit, slumping automaker Chrysler was back at Daytona, with a reported $100-million investment in the Winston Cup series of racing.

A dull race last year prompted NASCAR to tweak the rules and equipment for this Daytona 500. The goal was to slow down the cars and make them run closer together, to produce the kind of white-knuckle racing that fans love and drivers dread. No one was more pleased by the return of old-time racing than the man nicknamed ``The Intimidator.''

But not all the veteran drivers shared Earnhardt's enthusiasm.

``Do I enjoy being out there for 200 laps, side-by-side, where you can't even breathe or blink?'' Rusty Wallace, preparing for his 19th start at Daytona, asked in the days leading up to the race. ``I don't enjoy that. But it's the way we race here now.''

Yet no one figured to thrive in that charged environment more than Earnhardt. He was the best - and most fearless - driver in NASCAR when it came to picking his way through a pack of speeding cars separated only by inches. Earnhardt was so skilled at drafting, at using the slipstream behind an opponent's car to slingshot his own car, that other drivers swore he could ``see the air.''

Daytona International Speedway had yielded Earnhardt almost as much frustration as triumph. He won more races at the track than any other NASCAR driver - 32, in a career that spanned decades. But he'd been the runner-up four times the last eight years and it wasn't until 1998, in his 20th try, that Earnhardt captured the 500.

Still, for most of Sunday, he looked ready to repeat. It was a vintage Earnhardt performance in what looked like a vintage Daytona. There were 49 lead changes and a spectacular crash 25 laps from the end that involved 20 cars, but no serious injuries.

Throughout the race, Earnhardt was his usual tough, uncompromising self, willing to risk everything to get a nose in front.

At the end, Earnhardt did something so out of character that it may prove to be his legacy in the sport he so loved. Running third on the final lap, with one last chance to take a shot at the leaders, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr., the reigning king of NASCAR chose instead to keep the rest of the field at bay. He appeared to be sealing off Marlin and any other racer from closing that gap when the accident occurred.

Afterward, people who knew how selfish Earnhardt could be on a track remembered how generous he was when he stepped away from it.

``That was a move many of us who had known him for years would understand,'' said Jerry Punch, a TV commentator and close friend.


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