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Amid The Controversy Surrounding The Cause and Effect of His Death in a Crash at The Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Looms as large as Ever

Fans Love to Share Memories of Earnhardt, Which Makes It Very Painful to Childress


Race days should help, but they don't.

The reminders are everywhere. Enough No. 3s and pictures and posters of Dale Earnhardt to start a political convention, inside the race track and out. Parking lots are a sea of 3s--painted on cars, flapping from mini flagpoles, T-shirts stenciled with Earnhardt's name and number.

It never stops. It will be the same this weekend at California Speedway when NASCAR brings its Winston Cup show to Fontana.

Day after day, night after night, the pain and sorrow remain for Richard Childress, the empty feeling that comes from having lost his best friend, his closest business partner, in that wrenching crash at Daytona International Speedway that took Earnhardt's life in February.

Earnhardt was driving Childress' black No. 3 Chevrolet.

"There have been eight races since then, and I don't know how many days and nights," Childress said by telephone from his race shop in Welcome, N.C. "I've done my best to try to get everything back to normal, but it will never be.

"Every track we go to, it's a continual reminder of Dale and how everyone misses him. Fans come up and hand us an old picture of Dale they want to share. Or they want one of us to autograph something of his. We all have to live with it, but I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, wondering why. Or what if.

"Over Easter, we had some time off, so I went hunting in Montana, thinking it might take my mind off Dale. It was worse. I kept thinking he should be there. We hunted together before we ever got together in race cars. I packed up and came home early."

Curiously, the two had talked about what would happen to Richard Childress Racing if something happened to one of them--but neither thought it would end the way it did.

"Dale and I often talked about what would happen if I was in Africa and got run over by an elephant, or fell off a mountain, or if something happened to him in whatever manner, what we would want and what we would want to do--and that was to go on.

"Both of us were racers and we made a pledge to each other that we would go on, and that's what we've done."

Two days after the accident, Childress announced that Kevin Harvick, 25, the team's Busch Grand National driver from Bakersfield, would take the seat in Earnhardt's Chevrolet--but with No. 29 instead of 3 and painted white instead of black.

"Everything about the cars--we have 12 of them--is exactly the same as we were running with Dale, except the driver, the number and the color. I had no doubt in my mind about putting Kevin in the car. He had impressed me in our Busch car and after I talked to the guys in the shop, and the sponsors, I called him up and told him what we wanted him to do--be ready to race the next Sunday at Rockingham [N.C.].

"I explained to him all the pressure he would be under, the media scrutiny and all that sort of thing. He said he felt he could handle it, and he sure has."

Harvick's response: "Dale Earnhardt was probably the best race-car driver there's ever going to be in NASCAR. I would hope that you guys don't expect me to replace him, because nobody ever will."

In only his third Winston Cup race, Harvick won at Atlanta and, although he started his season a race late, he is 11th in the standings. He is also second in the Busch standings in an RCR Chevrolet.

"I'm not surprised," Childress said. "He has all the potential to be a champion. He has age on his side, he's knowledgeable and, hopefully, we can contribute to his future.

"I first saw him in a Winston West race at Fontana in 1998. We ran a car that day with Mike Dillon and Harvick won, very impressively. Then I watched him in the truck series. He never won, but I saw enough that I liked his style. There was one race in Bakersfield he had won and Ron Hornaday took it away from him.

"When Dale and I talked about what we'd do when he retired, he kidded me about wanting to hire Kevin away from me to drive one of his cars. Dale was so proud of what a tradition he had in the No. 3 car, he would have wanted to play a big role in who drove the car. I know he wanted the car to go on winning races, being part of a championship-caliber team. I'm sure Kevin would have been one of his picks."

What is going to happen to the No. 3 now?

It will not appear on a Winston Cup car for the rest of the year. To keep a number, a team must use it in at least five races in a season, but NASCAR waived that rule for Childress this year.

NASCAR ultimately controls all numbers and has said it will not retire one.

"I have some ideas and Teresa [Earnhardt's widow] has some ideas, but we're holding them back right now. Teresa and I have a good relationship and there are a lot of things we need to work out for the future, such as the images of Dale, but for the moment we're trying to let things get back to normal--if they ever can."

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