HAMPTON, Ga. - The sound of screaming engines echoed through the dogwood blossoms Tuesday. The garage area smelled like scorched brake pads and raw octane.
The routine was mundane, but refreshing: three laps and adjust the car, three more laps and even more adjustments. Several race teams utilized a test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway to fine-tune their cars and to emotionally get back on the fast track.
The sting of Dale Earnhardt's death has, at long last, become a dull pain. Race teams that struggled to focus on last week's Dura-Lube 400 at North Carolina Speedway now are back in their regimens of turning wrenches and hammering sheet metal with the same playful excitement that has been, and always will be, a quotidian part of the racing experience.
It might take months for the sport to get back up to speed. But at least for the first time since Earnhardt died suddenly on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, it is headed in the right direction. And that means running in counter-clockwise circles.
"We all wanted to get back to the race track and get back to racing to try to ease our minds," said Steve Park, one of Earnhardt's drivers, who won last Monday's rain-delayed race. "The busier you are, the less you think about what's transpired.
"For me, a lot of the healing process was just getting back to the race track and back to seeing your friends and sharing some cool stories of experiences we've all had with Dale.
"It's all part of the healing process that we all have to go through."
NASCAR has an uncanny way of writing the perfect story. The past week was no different.
When CBS offered the first flag-to-flag coverage of a stock car race on network television in 1979, viewers got a final-lap duel between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison that resulted in a crash then a fistfight.
When President Reagan visited Daytona for the 1984 Pepsi 400, he watched Richard Petty win his historic 200th career victory.
When Bill Elliott became the first driver to be eligible to win the Winston Million bonus in 1985, one of the largest cable television audiences of all time watched him make a dramatic dash in the final 50 miles to win.
And when race fans complained before the Atlanta race a year ago that racing had become too dull and boring, Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte waged a stirring battle for the win in the final 10 laps. Earnhardt won in a photo finish that magically ended most of the controversy.
There wasn't anything the sport could have done to lessen the grief created by Earnhardt's death, but Park's tearful victory came close. Park drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and his victory gave DEI two wins in two starts, counting Michael Waltrip's victory at the Daytona 500.
Now the sport can dry its collective tears and move to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 with one thing in mind - racing.
"The victory at Rockingham (Monday), that was a storybook finish for us," crew chief Paul Andrews said. "It was really a big, emotional weekend for us. We turned a lot of frowns into smiles on Monday. Even here at the shop, the atmosphere has been tremendous."
Drivers testing Tuesday and Wednesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway were looking for more than speed. They were looking for closure and piece of mind.
"The thing is, when Teresa went to bed that night, Dale wasn't there," Jimmy Spencer said of Earnhardt's wife. "And he won't be there ever again. There are four children who won't ever see their father again. To me, that's the real tragedy.
"We're going to miss Dale around here, but he would be the first to say the show must go on. Getting back to work is the best thing we could do. It's the best way we know how to deal with it. What happened was God's will. I believe that."
The music didn't stop when Elvis died. Baseball kept going long after Babe Ruth was gone. Television magazines stayed on the air after Lady Di was killed.
And Earnhardt's death won't stop the show, either.
"We're family, so it's nice to get together and get back to racing," Jeff Gordon said. "Dale Earnhardt cannot be replaced. This sport will go on and continue to be successful."
In victory, Park turned tears of sorrow into tears of joy. He knew that's exactly what the boss would have demanded.
"We were so excited to be able to win that race for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and start the healing process that we've all been longing for," he said. "Hopefully, winning that race lifted the spirits here (at the track) and at the shop."
WHAT: UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
SANCTIONING BODY: National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing's (NASCAR) Winston Cup Series.
WHERE: Las Vegas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile tri-oval with 12-degree banking in all four turns, 2,275-foot front stretch and a 1,572-foot backstretch.
WHEN: Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.
BROADCAST: Television - FOX; Radio - Motor Racing Network.
LAST YEAR'S WINNER: Jeff Burton (Ford Taurus).
MORRIS NEWS SERVICE PICK TO WIN: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
OTHERS TO WATCH: Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Johnny Benson and Jeff Burton.
WINSTON CUP SERIES STANDINGS: 1. Rusty Wallace, 311; 2. Sterling Marlin, 298; 3. Michael Waltrip, 291; 4. Bobby Hamilton, 266; 5. Steve Park, 255; 6. Bill Elliott, 254; 7. Jeff Gordon, 253; 8. Ricky Craven, 249; 9. Robert Pressley, 248; 10. Joe Nemechek, 242.
NOTES: The posted purse is $4,281,953 ... Roush Racing has won all three Winston Cup Series races at Las Vegas - Mark Martin in 1998 and Burton in both 1999 and 2000 ... Dale Earnhardt Inc. is undefeated this year. Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500, and Steve Park won at the North Carolina Speedway. The only DEI car yet to visit Victory Lane this year is driven by Earnhardt Jr. ... Las Vegas will be packed with sports figures this weekend. Not only are 150,000 racing fans expected on Sunday, but heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield will fight John Ruiz Saturday night at Mandalay Bay ... New engine rules for the NASCAR Busch Series have forced some teams out of business. There weren't enough cars at the North Carolina Speedway last week for a full field, and they don't expect enough at Saturday's Sam's Town 200. A year ago, 65 cars attempted to make the 43-car field.
OTHER KEY RACES: Saturday - Sam's Town 200 for NASCAR Busch Series (2 p.m. on FOX).
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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