Originally created 07/11/01

Dale Jr. got set up for win



Less than five minutes into Saturday night's race formerly known as the Firecracker 400, my father-in-law's eyes were already sagging.

"You can go to bed in peace knowing that this one's a done deal," I assured him. "Dale Jr. can't lose."

It could not have been scripted any better - or any other way. Less than five months since Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona sunk the NASCAR world into unimaginable grief, the son would have to rise this night to make it all better.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. delivered as expected. He delivered with a car that was clearly superior to all the rest. He did it with emotion that swept up the fans and drivers and NBC television audience. He delivered with an eerie symmetry to that ill-fated 500 in February.

Too eerie, it seems. Suddenly everyone is wondering about the legitimacy of the outcome (possibly because all of the drivers kept using the word "script" in their interviews). Was the fix in?

Of course it was - at least as much as a NASCAR race with countless variables can be rigged. Maybe "fixing" is a little strong. "Setting it up" sounds better. It's all about stacking the odds.

The defenders of NASCAR's integrity say there is no way you can get 43 drivers to agree to fix the outcome of a certain race. They're right.

The point is, you don't need to do that. The only people that need to be on the same page are the NASCAR inspectors. If you can do that and keep from running into Jimmy Spencer or Dave Marcis, you'll be fine.

The truth is, every single car is illegal for every single race. It's a question of degrees. All that matters is if NASCAR wants to catch you or not.

Believe me, they didn't want to catch Dale Jr. If his car was so strong that four fresh tires could send it hurtling past seven cars in a lap-and-a-half during a restrictor-plate restart, so be it. I got a minor in physics. I can do the math.

Race teams know what they can and cannot get away with on any given race day. The good ones understand when they can push the envelope. If you're in the NASCAR doghouse, you better play it close to the vest or you will be flagged. (Has anyone heard from the Roush teams lately?)

But if you're one of the chosen few, it's just a matter of timing. And the timing was never better than Saturday night. Not a person in the motorsports universe wanted anything other than a Dale Jr. victory. That was one win that would resonate throughout the whole Winston Cup series.

It worked out a little too perfectly for NBC, televising its first race in primetime. The network went so far as to coach the drivers on how to celebrate. Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip took their cues beautifully.

This is nothing new in NASCAR. The timing has been right before. Only our memories are wrong.

Richard Petty winning his 200th and last race at Daytona has long been considered a scripted ending. Indiana native Jeff Gordon winning the inaugural Brickyard or the senior Earnhardt finally breaking through at the Daytona 500 to kick off NASCAR's 50th anniversary further fueled the conspiracy theorists.

Ever since the owners introduced multiple race teams, the win-or-else spirit of NASCAR has already been diluted to a Tour de France spirit of cooperation. It's a short step to backing off the gas when something too good to be true is unfolding on your front bumper.

When the pieces fell into place Saturday night, nobody was going to challenge Dale Jr. even if they had a car strong enough to catch him. This ending was preordained. Earnhardt would do doughnuts and dance on the grassy knoll.

Believe it or not.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.