- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Surely, everyone would understand if Dale Earnhardt Jr. took this weekend off.
It was at this track on Feb. 18 that he watched in his rear view mirror as his father crashed into Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway on the last lap of the Daytona 500, a crash that proved fatal.
Surely, if the son didn't race in tomorrow night's Pepsi 400, even his sponsors wouldn't mind.
But then again, this is Dale Earnhardt's little boy.
"This may sound hard to believe, but I'm looking forward to racing at Daytona," Earnhardt said in a statement released by his publicist. "It's the greatest track we race at for all of its history and the fact it was really the first superspeedway of its kind. You just know it's special every time you get on the track."
It would be ridiculous for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to pretend he will be completely focused on the race. He does not want anyone to believe that. What he does want fans and fellow drivers to remember is this: February's race was an amazing run for Junior.
He led 13 laps and set two personal bests at Daytona starting sixth and finishing second, right behind teammate Michael Waltrip, who won driving a car Dale Earnhardt owned.
Waltrip said of Junior's performance, "I couldn't have done it if he wasn't back there pushing me straight to the finish line. He got behind me and just pushed me to victory.
"I know this weekend will probably be very difficult for Dale Jr. I mean, it will be difficult for all of us. It's weird because you'd think I'd be excited, being the last winner at this track, but I don't think there's any excitement from that day."
As Junior pushed Waltrip to victory, Dale Earnhardt, running third, crashed. Dale Jr. remembers thinking his father was going to be upset that he lost a bunch of places in his finish, but the son never thought it was a fatal accident.
"I expected to see him after the race," Junior said a few weeks after the incident.
Instead, he never saw his father again.
He ran to the infield care center, but Earnhardt Sr. had been taken to the hospital already. So Junior rode with stepmother Teresa to the hospital, where the pair learned that Dale Earnhardt was dead.
Earnhardt Jr. requested that the media not ask for interviews this week. However, he talked last month about the constant attention he gets from fans and sometimes tactless requests, such as when he is asked to autograph pictures of his father.
"I can't really see where that's cool, you know? It kind of gives me the creeps a little bit," Earnhardt told USA Today. "It's almost like somebody's taking advantage of something somewhere. So it's just a little unsettling sometimes."
Still worse are those selling memorabilia on television or online.
"That's the world we live in, you know. The older you get, you really find out," Earnhardt said. "When you're in high school, man, you got no clue that there's people like that out there. You figure everybody's out there making a living, doing their thing. And as you get older, year after year, [you realize] that there's more and more crooks and inconsiderate [people] out there than you can imagine.
"They don't think that this is wrong. Maybe it ain't wrong. I don't know. It's all a matter of choice, whether you want to make money off that situation or not. You look like an ass doing it."
For now, Earnhardt's focus remains on tomorrow's race.
"I don't know how I will feel when I go through the tunnel or how I will feel when I pull onto the track," he said in his statement.
He's not alone.
"My emotions kind of bounce all over the place on a day-to-day basis," Waltrip said. "For me to say that I won't feel any special emotions or different emotions wouldn't be true. I'm sure it will be weird."
Earnhardt did say, though, that he looks forward to Daytona because Daytona International Speedway is one of two tracks on the NASCAR circuit that produce speeds so high that carburetor restrictor plates are mandatory. The plates limit the amount of air that goes into the carburetor, thereby limiting the horsepower and acceleration of the car.
Last season NASCAR introduced a new aerodynamics package for superspeedway racing, which drivers say causes them to bunch up in packs. With the restrictor plates on the cars, the drivers are unable to pull away from the packs and end up riding on top of each other at 180 mph.
As Junior returns to Daytona, he isn't afraid of racing with restrictor plates.
"Restrictor-plate racing is my favorite because you're always two-and three-wide and the driver really makes a difference," Junior said. "It takes a thinking driver to stay up front, and I like the chess element of it."
Junior is ready to return to Daytona. He is not sure what that return will feel like, but he is sure he's ready to race.
"What else would I do," he said. "I'm a race car driver."
Distributed by Scripps Howard.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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