Sunday, May 13, 2001

Earnhardt questions follow NASCAR drivers

By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPARTA, Ky. — Michael Waltrip and Sterling Marlin, both key figures in the Feb.18 death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, said Saturday time has eased some of the pain.

Michael Waltrip (7) and Sterling Marlin compete in the Legends race.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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        Still, the Earnhardt questions follow them to every event they attend, such as their celebrity “Legends” race at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday afternoon. A crowd of 26,202 watched several Winston Cup drivers in the Legends race, followed by an ARCA RE/MAX stock race won by pole sitter Frank Kimmel.

        “Everything's pretty well back to normal,” Waltrip said. “But it's fair to say I'm still thinking about (Daytona) a lot.”

        It has been nearly three months since Waltrip won the Daytona 500, his first career victory. But his crowning achievement occurred at nearly the same instant that Earnhardt, Waltrip's car owner, was killed in a last-lap crash.

        As for Marlin, he received death threats after TV replays showed his car possibly clipped Earnhardt's just before the fatal wreck. Rational observers knew Marlin was not at fault, but Marlin had some tough days in the hysteria following Daytona.

        “It's all turned into a positive, really, since then,” Marlin said. “When people looked back and saw what happened, they realized the situation. It was just one of those things ... nothing you could do.”

Waltrip and Ernie Irvan sign autographs.
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        Saturday, former Daytona 500 champs Waltrip and Marlin signed autographs for fans along with another former Daytona winner, Ernie Irvan, and Winston Cup driver Brett Bodine. The foursome later staged a pair of 10-lap Legends races — the Legends cars are scaled-down versions of old hot rods.

        Irvan won the first race, Waltrip the second.

        NASCAR never races on Mother's Day, one reason the Winston Cup drivers were able to appear at Kentucky this weekend.

        Winston driver Tony Stewart was to appear at the track Friday night for a USAC Midget race, but that show was rained out. Saturday's weather was sunny and cool.

        Earnhardt and Waltrip were longtime friends. For 2001, Earnhardt had become Waltrip's car owner.


Experience the Kentucky Speedway through 360 immersive photography.
        “It's easier now to hear people congratulate you for winning, but it's still difficult to think about that day,” Waltrip said.

        Waltrip, 38, has not been able to reproduce his Daytona success. He has dropped to 26th in the Winston points race.

        “We've really struggled since the third or fourth race,” Waltrip said. “I'm looking forward to getting back on track.”

        Marlin, 43, ranks fifth in the Winston Cup points race.

        Marlin and Waltrip have both tested cars at Kentucky. Both endorse the track, as do virtually 100 percent of visiting drivers. How about the much-discussed possibility of a Win ston Cup race at the speedway?

        “I wish they would,” Marlin said. “It's a real neat track.”

        Waltrip, an Owensboro, Ky., native, has more interest in that than most. Older brother Darrell, a former Winston Cup champion, is also a Kentucky Speedway executive who helped design the track.

        “I hope we can have a race here someday,” Michael Waltrip said.

        Saturday, the fans made him their favorite. Waltrip had the longest lines of auto graph seekers at his booth outside the track, and many fans mentioned Earnhardt as they passed by: “Sorry about Dale ... Great win at Daytona, Michael ... I'm sure Dale's thinking about you.”

        Waltrip, known as one of the friendliest and most accessible drivers in a sport full of them, replied with a steady stream of smiles and thank-yous.

        “Dale and I were buddies,” he said. “He thought I could win if I got in the right car, and I did. We're going to try to do it again.”

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