It has been nearly five months since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last turn of the Daytona 500, but not since that fateful Feb. 18 have his fellow Winston Cup drivers been asked to face what is ahead of them next week.
When they go through the tunnel into Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, they will return for the first time to the site of the tragedy. Most of them had left the track after the 500 before it was announced Earnhardt had died.
"That will be the most difficult thing we've had to do since Rockingham," said Kevin Harvick, the Bakersfield driver named to replace Earnhardt on Richard Childress' team. Rockingham was the next race after Daytona, only a week later and three days after Earnhardt's memorial service in Charlotte, N.C.
"We will have to lean on each other and help each other and try to remember the good times," Harvick said. "I don't really know how else to approach it. There are things that will be going through your mind, but I think the only thing you can do is go there and race. It's going to be on the back of everyone's mind. That's just how it is."
The Pepsi 400 is a July 7 night race at Daytona.
Childress changed the number of his car from Earnhardt's 3 to 29 for Harvick and had the black Chevrolet repainted white.
"We have tried to look at it as just another race, but it's not going to be another race," Childress said. "It's nothing we can turn away from. Dale is going to be on everyone's mind, whether they want it or not."
Ford driver Jeff Burton feels otherwise, but he's concerned that another serious accident may happen on the high banks of Daytona's 2.5-mile oval.
"In our lives, it's been a long time since the thing happened at Daytona," Burton said. "We live our lives based on what race we're going to next and there's been a lot of water under the bridge since we were at Daytona last.
"I've been asked a lot about going back to where Earnhardt got killed, but I don't look at it like that. I don't associate the racetrack with the place where [he] got killed at.
"What does worry me is that the rules [cause us to] bunch up so much that one mistake by one person is all it takes for a really big wreck. We had a big 18-car wreck the last time we were there and there's no reason to think that won't happen again. It'll be wild. That appears to be what [NASCAR] wants. It'll be a hell of a race, a fun race to watch, but the potential is there for a really big wreck."
Jimmy Spencer also says drivers shouldn't dwell on Earnhardt's death.
"There's no question that losing Dale Earnhardt was the biggest loss Winston Cup has ever had," Spencer said. "Yeah, you're definitely going to remember that's where Dale lost his life, but on the other side, I feel like it doesn't bother me. I don't believe there's one driver in the garage that gets in their car and starts thinking about Dale, except maybe his boy a little bit.
"I shouldn't speak for the other drivers, but when they say, 'Gentlemen, start your engines,' I'm not going to be thinking about what happened in February."
Dale Jarrett has fond memories of Daytona, having won there four times, two Daytona 500s and two Pepsi 400s.
"Normally, going through the tunnel there, I get a really good feeling because I've been fortunate to have a lot of success and I always look forward to going to Daytona," Jarrett said. "This time, I don't think that's going to be the case. I'm sure I'll have other emotions. It's going to be a tough time for all of us, a time we're all going to have to get through, but we'll do it. The good memories will be the great racing I had with Dale there."
Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte said the tough part will be hanging around the garage between practice, qualifying and the race.
"It's going to be weird," Labonte said. "I know I'm going to be waiting for that guy to come around the corner, pinch me on the arm and give me that big grin. I don't remember anyone who looked you right in the eye when he talked the way he did. His eyes are what I remember.
"I don't think anyone can say it won't be difficult. Real difficult."
Fourth of July
For a mid-week Fourth of July show, the Sprint Car Racing Assn. will hold a 50-lap main event Wednesday night at Perris Auto Speedway. It will be the SCRA's first appearance at its home track since making a six-race tour of the Midwest.
Three-time series champion Richard Griffin won three races to close within 184 points of leader Cory Kruseman. Troy Rutherford, who won the final touring event, is third. Kruseman should be looking forward to returning to Perris' half-mile oval. He has won three times there this year.
Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino will also have a Wednesday night show, featuring bomber stocks, lady bombers, Tri-State mini stocks and legends cars. Plus, of course, fireworks.
Fireworks will also be part of Irwindale Speedway's holiday program, but it won't be on the Fourth. It will be July 7 after an evening of NASCAR super late model, late model and super stocks, plus American race trucks and legend cars.
Ricky Carmichael, after getting off to a slow start in the national 250cc outdoor season, is back on top. If he wins Sunday at Red Bud Park in Buchanan, Mich., he will equal Bob "Hurricane" Hannah's record of 37 outdoor motocross victories.
Carmichael's winning percentage since turning pro is a remarkable 54.3%. In 116 races, including 125, 250 and supercross, he has 63 victories. Hannah had a 42% career winning percentage. Jeremy McGrath, who is skipping the outdoor season to prepare for next year's supercross, holds the overall record with 101 victories, 84 in supercross.
This may be Carmichael's last season with Kawasaki, however. The Florida rider is being wooed by Honda, which has not had a championship season since McGrath left them in 1997. After losing the first three outdoor races, Carmichael has won the last two and leads the series with 205 points over Suzuki's Kevin Windham (192 points) and Honda's Sebastien Tortelli (190).
Even NASCAR's Winston Cup is having sponsorship problems. DuraLube has pulled out of the last year of its contract for the Oct. 28 race at Phoenix International Raceway. . . . And what is CART thinking, canceling the most exciting and competitive race on its schedule, the Michigan 500, after this year's race? CART has already had races in Brazil and Texas canceled this season. Rumors that CART's season-ending race at California Speedway might meet the same fate as Michigan were denied by CART President Joe Heitzler, who said, "We are committed [to California Speedway] through 2004." The Indy Racing League is expected to announce this weekend that it will replace CART at Michigan Speedway next year.
Flat-track motorcycle races, once an important part of the Southland racing scene, will return briefly Saturday night at Perris Auto Speedway and Ventura Raceway. At Perris, former Grand National champion Gene Romero will showcase his West Coast Flat Track series, while Ventura will feature Outlaw Vintage Short Track races. The Ventura program will be followed Sunday by an antique and classic motorcycle show.
After a taxing road course race last week at Sears Point, NASCAR Featherlite Southwest series teams will return to more familiar oval racing Saturday night for a 150-lap race at Bakersfield's Mesa Marin Raceway. Missing will be points leader M.K. Kanke, who is home in Frazier Park recuperating from a broken right leg suffered during practice at Sears Point, and Jim Inglebright, the Sears Point race winner who is concentrating on the Craftsman Truck series. Kanke won the June 2 race at Mesa Marin. Craig Raudman will try for a record sixth consecutive pole during qualifying.
Bernie Little and Dave Villwock open another year of domination in the unlimited hydroplane series this weekend, when the 2001 season opens in Evansville, Ind. Villwock won six of seven races last year and is favored to sweep all six this year in Little's Miss Budweiser. Little has won 20 series championships, four with Villwock as his driver. . . .
Jaques Lazier has been named by car owner Sam Schmidt to replace injured Davey Hamilton in Saturday night's race at Richmond International Speedway.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
This Week's Races
GNC Live Well 250
* When: Today, qualifying, 4:45 p.m.; Sunday, race (FX, 10:30 a.m.)
* Where: The Milwaukee Mile (oval 1 mile, 9 degrees banking in turns), West Allis, Wis.
* Race distance: 250 miles, 250 laps.
* Last race: Kevin Harvick took the lead after a yellow-flag pit stop and dominated the rest of the way to win the inaugural Outback Steakhouse 300 in Sparta, Ky. Harvick picked up his second Busch victory of the year before flying to Long Pond, Pa., to race in Winston Cup's Pocono 500.
* Last year: Jeff Green got his fourth victory of the year, beating Jeff Purvis by .797 seconds.
* Fast facts: There have been no repeat winners in 10 previous races. . . . Green won from the pole last year, the second consecutive season the winner started first. Casey Atwood won the race in 1999 from the pole. . . . Harvick leads Greg Biffle 2,416-2,294 in the standings.
* Next race: GNC Live Well 200, July 8, Watkins Glen, N.Y.
* On the net: www.nascar.com
GNC Live Well 200
* When: Today, qualifying, 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, race (ESPN, 10 a.m.)
* Where: The Milwaukee Mile (oval 1 mile, 9 degrees banking in turns), West Allis, Wis.
* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
* Last race: Dennis Setzer held off points leader Scott Riggs and ended a 17-race drought with a victory in the Memphis 200. Setzer grabbed the lead on the 166th of 200 laps at the three-quarter-mile Memphis Motorsports Park and outran the Dodge of Riggs to the finish. Setzer's Chevrolet held a 1.608-second lead--about a dozen truck-lengths--at the conclusion of the 150-mile race.
* Last year: Kurt Busch held off Randy Tolsma on two late restarts to win, becoming the youngest driver to take a NASCAR truck series event. Busch, 22, led 156 of the race's 200 laps, including the final 56.
* Fast facts: This is the seventh year of the race. There have been six different winners. . . . Three of the six winners, including the last two, have started on the pole.
* Next race: Kansas 300, July 7, Kansas City, Kan.
* On the net: www.nascar.com
Marconi Grand Prix
* When: Saturday, qualifying 1:45 p.m. (ESPN2, 3:30 p.m., tape); Sunday, race (Ch. 7, 10 a.m.)
* Where: Burke Lakefront Airport (temporary road course, 2.106 miles, 10 turns), Cleveland.
* Race distance: 210.6 miles, 100 laps.
* Last race: Pole-sitter Max Papis left a rain-drenched track filled with skidding drivers behind him in the Freightliner/G.I. Joe's 200 in Portland, Ore., for his second career victory. The race was marred by nine caution flags and several spinouts by the leaders. Papis held off Roberto Moreno by 1.472 seconds.
* Last year: Moreno won for the first time after 16 years of racing and 70 CART starts. Moreno started from the pole and led 91 of 100 laps.
* Fast facts: Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi share the record of three victories at Cleveland. . . . Alex Zanardi won the event in 1997 and 1998. . . . Kenny Brack leads Helio Castroneves by seven points in the standings.
* Next race: Molson Indy, July 15, Toronto.
* On the net: www.cart.com
INDY RACING CHALLENGE
SunTrust Indy 200
* When: Today, qualifying, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m., tape); Saturday, race (ESPN, 5 p.m.)
* Where: Richmond International Raceway (d-shaped oval, .75 miles, 14 degrees banking in turns), Richmond, Va.
* Race distance: 187.5 miles, 250 laps.
* Last race: Buddy Lazier stalked Sam Hornish Jr. for 156 laps and overtook him on a restart after a caution flag to win the Radisson 200 in Fountain, Colo. Robbie Buhl finished third, followed by Billy Boat and Airton Dare.
* Last year: Inaugural event.
* Fast facts: The race is the first Indy-car event in the state of Virginia. . . . This is the third night race of the season. . . . Hornish leads Eliseo Salazar, 229-173, in the standings.
* Next race: Kansas Indy 300, July 8, Kansas City, Kan.
* On the net: www.indyracingleague.com
French Grand Prix
* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speedvision, 4 a.m.); Sunday, race (Speedvision, 4:30 a.m.)
* Where: Magny-Cours (road course, 2.641 miles), Magny-Cours.
* Race distance: 72 laps, 190.152 miles.
* Last race: Michael Schumacher won the European Grand Prix in Nurburgring, Germany, taking advantage of a 10-second penalty that ended younger brother Ralf's challenge. Juan Montoya matched his season best by finishing second, 4.2 seconds behind Schumacher after 67 laps on the 2.831-mile circuit. Ralf Schumacher finished fourth. He was penalized for crossing onto the track too soon after a pit stop.
* Last year: David Coulthard passed Michael Schumacher on Lap 40 and went on to win.
* Fast facts: Last week was Michael Schumacher's fifth victory in nine races and brought his Grand Prix victory total to 49, two short of Alain Prost's record.
* Next race: British Grand Prix, July 15, Silverstone.
* On the net: www.formula1.com