2003 Season

Earnhardt's influence still felt at Daytona 500
By Lewis Franck

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (February 14, 2002)
Two years after Dale Earnhardt Sr's death at the last turn on the last lap of the Daytona 500, the seven-time Winston Cup champion's influence is still keenly felt.

Known as the Intimidator for his rough-and-tumble driving style in the black No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Earnhardt, Sr. appeared all but indestructible and still championship material at the age of 50.

Then came the fatal accident.

John Andretti, a nephew of former World and Indy 500 champion, Mario Andretti, who now drives for the only other seven-time champ Richard Petty, explained: "It was like with Richard and my uncle.

"It (death at a race) didn't happen to them, they said it would never happen with them," he said. "Then the immortal became mortal."

Just as Earnhardt was larger than life, a nine-foot 1,200 pound, statute of the fallen racer stands outside the Daytona International Speedway proclaims that he remains larger in death also.

The only others so honored are NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. and his wife Anne B. forming a Mt. Rushmore-style tableaux of stock car racing.

Memorial decals are plastered on race fans' vehicles as they approach the hallowed ground of the Speedway. Numerous couples have had wedding ceremonies in front of the statue.

More than just the fans, Earnhardt's influence is felt among the team that he owned and the team he drove for.

Meanwhile, his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to drive for the team, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI), started by his father and now owned by his step-mother Teresa.

Jeff Green, who sits on the pole for Sunday's race, drove for the elder Earnhardt and now drives a Chevrolet owned by Earnhardt's former team owner Richard Childress Racing (RCR).

The top four grid positions are all occupied by drivers from either DEI or RCR -- Green, Earnhardt Jr., Robby Gordon (RCR) and Michael Waltrip (DEI).

The two teams consistently run well on the high banked, high speed tracks like Daytona and Talledega where the 3,400-pound race cars are fitted with a restrictor plate on the carburetor to reduce speed.

Earnhardt Jr. explained why the two teams, which previously had a technical cooperative program, continue to do so well.

"We take a lot of pride in our restrictor-plate programs, and Richard always has and they've always ran well at them and always had a lot of success there and they continue to today," he said.

Childress, a former driver, said: "Dale, he was the man here for many, many years. We just gave him a car. I'll always give Dale Earnhardt all the credit."



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