DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR, however flawed, is back in business. Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway put a different spin on the beleaguered sport and shifted the focus away from the life and death questions that have plagued the sport in the past five months.
The race couldn't have had a better script because it came when the sport needed it most: A new television audience on NBC. A crush of national attention focusing on a sport that was making its return to the track where its greatest asset, Dale Earnhardt, died on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500 in February. A growing controversy over the lack of direction on key safety issues.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory changed all that. Tony Stewart's tirade was yet another useful distraction.
Earnhardt Jr. rallied from sixth place in the final six laps to stir tearful memories of his father, who was at his best when the traffic was heavy and the tension was thick. And, like his father, he made it look easy.
"The car was flying," the third generation driver said. "It was just faster than anybody else. I could get right to the front and when I got to the front, nobody could catch me. Everyone once in a while, you get a car that'll do that."
Every once in a while seems to be more frequent when NASCAR needs a lift. The national media focused on stock car racing in 1984 when President Reagan visited Daytona to watch Richard Petty go for his 200th career win.
The sport reached another milestone in 1985 when Bill Elliott needed a victory at the Southern 500 to win a $1 million bonus from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The sport needed Earnhardt Jr. to win Saturday night. It was the only ending that could help bring some closure to his father's death. It was the only way to shift the focus from the sanctioning body for not addressing several key safety issues. It was the only way to forget, even if for only a moment, about the mistakes by NASCAR made early in the investigation.
"I can't think of a better script to play than come back to the track that took his father away from him," said driver Rusty Wallace.
Said Jeff Burton: "It's hard to imagine anybody that you would want to win here any more than Little Earnhardt. It's good to see. To come back where he lost his father and win is pretty cool."
And Ken Schrader, the man who was first to reach the crash scene last February, was happy with the outcome.
"There's no better way to do it," he said. "This is just fantastic."
Young Earnhardt was followed across the finish line by teammate Michael Waltrip. Five months earlier, Waltrip led Earnhardt Jr. across the line for a one-two finish in the Daytona 500. At the time, neither could fathom that a quarter mile behind them, the elder Earnhardt was dead from a head-on collision with the wall in the fourth turn.
Waltrip said he didn't attempt to pass Earnhardt Jr. because he understood the son needed the victory. So did the sport. In fact, he was willing to block anyone who tried to veer away from a script that had anyone other than Earnhardt winning the race.
"I was committed to my buddy," Waltrip said. "I was going to stay here (in second place) and battle for him. At the end of the race, I just pushed him home."
Earnhardt Jr. was ready to win, but he wasn't prepared for the response.
"I never would have imagined this would happen," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I can't sit here and understand it. I can't believe this is happening to me. I don't know why this is happening to me."
Fans cheered wildly in the grandstands. It was the most visible outpouring of affection - and satisfaction - in the sport's history. It was too good to be true.
As Earnhardt Jr. celebrated in Victory Lane, the speedway uncorked a 30-minute fireworks show that ended with aerial bomb blasts in the shape of the number 3 - the number Earnhardt made famous. And in this whirlwind of emotion, the blueprint of controversy that threatened the sport was lost. As if by plan, NASCAR was back.
Stewart made it even more interesting when he ignored a black flag for crossing the yellow line near the track apron in the closing laps. NASCAR dropped him from a sixth-place finish to 26th as a penalty.
After the race, Stewart had to be restrained as he lurched toward NASCAR competition direction Gary Nelson. Stewart, who's already on probation for purposely driving into Jeff Gordon on pit road after a race in Bristol, Tenn., could face a fine or suspension.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org
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