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Highs and Lows From Days And Nights At Daytona

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 21 2016
It's tough to take about Daytona and without talking about the Earnhardts. (File photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

It’s tough to take about Daytona and without talking about the Earnhardts. (File photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

The days are long, the spring-break motels barnyard smelly, the traffic infuriating, the editors clueless, the food unhealthy and the work rooms crowded with flu-ridden and increasingly testy colleagues.

Boy, it’s tough not being in Daytona for Speedweeks this February simply because it’s, well, Daytona bugopinionwith cars on the track. Enough said.

Most memorable Speedweeks moments from years and years of guzzling Houston Lawing Press Box coffee and covering stock car racing at wonderful old Daytona International Speedway:

1. The biggest moment was the worst moment. It was 2001. The day Superman died. The leaders headed out of Turn 3 on one of those beautiful Florida late afternoons afternoon in orangish fading light and a seemingly routine wreck occurred. As Michael Waltrip sped down through the tri-oval to take the checkered flag, Dale Earnhardt’s car glided down toward the infield at the eerily slow crawl of a ghost ship.

Ken Schrader, also involved in the wreck, got out of his car and headed toward Earnhardt’s. Once
there, he quickly turned away. That was sign No. 1 of trouble. With most eyes fixed on the jube of Waltrip, more signs of disaster unfolded to the point where I turned to fellow Kansas City Star staffer Jason Whitlock and said, “something’s wrong down there”.

Turned out that everything was wrong down there.

Press box phones began ringing, rumors began spreading and then, hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton confirmed auto racing’s biggest fears. How big was the news of the death of NASCAR’s biggest star? The next day, in a crowded hospitality tent outside the front stretch at DIS, a reporter from TV Guide asked one of the first questions at a press conference.

2. The 2007 Daytona 500 was of interest 500 miles before its ending simply because a young Kansas driver had landed a terrific ride for top-tier Richard Childress Racing. Clint Bowyer, who had been mega impressive in pounding veteran drivers on the short tracks of the Kansas City area, was driving the exceedingly cool Jack Daniels Chevy with that old No. 7 on the doors.

Coming out of the final turn, a big wreck exploded behind eventual winner Kevin Harvick. Cars hit walls, hit other cars, hit the infield turf.

Streaking right through the middle of it all came Bowyer, except he and the No. 07 were upside down.

The car, shooting sparks and flames into the early evening darkness, skidded a good quarter mile on its roof. It crossed the finish line upside down, skidded into the grass and slowed turned over again and onto its wheels. Out through the window of the bonfire/car slid Bowyer.

A scribe sitting near me would lean over and ask; is that how they do it in Kansas?

3. Daytona International Speedway is a very large track. It’s 2.5 miles around. Its infield is so vast that it contains both a world class road circuit and a lake large enough to host water skiers.

DIS is not so vast, however, that you can’t see the back stretch from race control, which sits right next to the press box, half way up the grandstands near the start-finish line.

In 2002, a big late-race wreck brought out a red flag. The field, with Sterling Marlin up front, pulled up and parked behind the pace car on the back stretch. Suddenly, gazing across the acres of campers and partying fans, the window net of Marlin’s Chip Ganassi Racing could be seen dropping. Then, out climbed Marlin.

That was legal. Not legal was what followed. Marlin looked at a crumpled fender and then began tugging on it to keep it from rubbing on the tire. In the press box, groaning; “Um, Sterling, what up?” Facepalms followed. Virtually everybody up there knew the rules – no working on a car during a red flag.

Marlin, who appeared to have the victory nailed before the red flag, would later say this: “I never read the rule book.”

4. Race cars are really loud. Painfully loud – literally. So loud they have cost people like Richard Petty and David Pearson major portions of their ability hear – again, literally. But on the final lap of the 2004 Daytona 500, they were not loud enough to out-roar the crowd as it frantically vocalized Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his first win in the big event.

And they certainly were not loud enough to drown out the conspiracy theories in the hours after the race.

Three years had passed since the No. 3 car changed everything in NASCAR except the love affair between the Earnhardt family and its fans. Junior was The Man now, the black No. 3 Chevy of Senior had given way to the No. 8 red-and-white Bud Chevy of Junior, but the 500 was still the golden fleece for drivers named Earnhardt.

Junior had the cars and speed to win the 500 in both 2002 and 2003, but bad luck in the form of a cut tire and then a failed alternator cost him his shots.

In 2004, it looked like Tony Stewart might cost him another shot as Stewart began the final lap in prime position – sitting second, right behind Junior. But Stewart’s move never came and the crowd went psycho, Earnhardt was sucked into a group bear hug on the part of his team and the tears of joy flowed.

Except among an interesting contingent of press box skeptics who thought Earnhardt’s super strong restrictor plate engine looked too super strong. Earnhardt himself waived off a conspiracy and put forth an alternative reason for the win – he said he felt that his father, who had died at Daytona in 2001, was with him in the car that day.

5. I missed Daytona in 1998 as I was an assistant sports editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time and was only working races at Texas Motor Speedway. That is why Dale Earnhardt’s breakthrough victory is ranked this low.

But the race was so thoroughly unforgettable that it has to make this list even if the mention comes by way of a proxy.

The last lap, the pass through pit road with virtually every crewman from every team elbowing each other out of the way to get the chance to high-five Earnhardt, the victory lane celebration, the moist eyes. The scene remains fixed in the brain and for two reasons.

First, the undeniable historical significance of the event. Second, the humanizing effect that it had on a man and a legend that was built on a foundation of cold, steely intimidation. Not everybody around American racing was an Earnhardt fan. Some still clung to to the concept of drivers as gentleman and the only good pass was a clean pass.

But late on that day in 1998, Earnhardt non fans into big fans not by merely winning a race, but showing a human side to his personality. The image of Earnhardt Sr. as single-minded and cold-blooded would take another giant pop to the noggin a couple months later when he appeared as a guest speaker before the National Press Club. Earnhardt, The Intimidator, charmed the argyle socks off a room full of people who made their livings by resisting charm.

Einstein said that time travel is possible. When it becomes a reality, this dude be headed to Speedweeks, 1998.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 21 2016
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