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Death of best friend Bonnett is hardest loss yet for Earnhardt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt is the Man in Black, The Intimidator. He is NASCAR's six-time champion.

In a sport where death can be the price paid for participation, men like Earnhardt often seem bigger than life.

And here at Daytona International Speedway, where Earnhardt will contend again for his first Daytona 500 victory today, he has worked hard at living up to the image.

Publicly, the champion smiles, signs autographs, shakes hands and seems to get a genuine kick out of everything from installing a seat in his IROC car to winning Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race.

Privately, sitting in the living room of the spacious motor coach he has here, with its large front window facing the garage area, he removes his sunglasses and rubs his eyes and looks solemn.

For Earnhardt, his car owner Richard Childress and their GM Goodwrench team, this has been one of the hardest weeks.

"I don't feel the same as when I came down here," said Earnhardt, who two weeks ago talked about winning the race that has eluded him.

"We're bound and determined to defeat that race and be a Daytona 500 winner," he said then. "The fact that I haven't won it drives me. I want to win it because it's our Super Bowl, but also because it's a race and I want to win every race I run. But it ain't going to devastate me if I don't."

Since he said that, two men have been killed here. Rookie Rodney Orr last Monday and veteran Neil Bonnett 10 days ago.

"You lose your best friend," Earnhardt said, his voice trailing off into a sigh. "There's a big void there losing Neil."

Bonnett's car crashed into the Turn 2 wall during a practice session, killing him instantly. He was Earnhardt's best friend.

"I guess it's all part of the game," Earnhardt said. "But I'm not tired of the game. I'm not Michael Jordan. I sure don't want to play basketball."

He sat there reflecting. Recalling other drivers who had been lost in racing accidents, drivers he had admired when he was growing up. Fireball Roberts. Tiny Lund.

"We lost a lot of guys in the old days," he said. "Many more then than now . . . . But, racing is a tough sport. It's tough to follow it and see some of the tragedy that can happen. And it doesn't happen that often. Our safety record is pretty good."

But it has hit home with Earnhardt. When he came here he knew he would be mobbed with questions about his quest. In 15 years he has not won the Daytona 500.

He has eight top-five finishes. Two seconds. He finished 14th in 1988, after leading with two laps to go. He has had blown tires, hit a bird and been outrun.

But he insists that not winning this race doesn't eat at him.

"When I drop down in the seat, I'm dead, all-fired, busting trying to win it," Earnhardt said. "But when I step out of that car and I've finished second and a tire's blown out, it's not the end of the world. My world's not going to end.

"I don't sit around and ponder. When this day's over, it's time to go on to tomorrow. You learn to make it in life. It's like losing your dad or losing your best friend Neil or something. You learn to remember the good times, the things they did and go on. It's a tough thing to do. But you do it."

But when he was reminded the other day that he has been trying to win this race for 15 years, he did a double-take.

"It's not 15 years," he said. "Is it 15 years? Well, I'm not going to lay awake at night for the rest of my life thinking about it. Sure the night after you lose it -- or for the week after, like the year we blew that tire -- maybe.

"But when you get outrun, like we did by Dale [Jarrett] last year, I can take getting beat. I can't take beating ourselves or something happening you have no control over."

He will notch his belts the way he always has when he gets in his race car today, remembering the first lesson his father taught him, "to make yourself comfortable in your car" and that means feeling safe in it.

"I can be at my best in this race," Earnhardt said. "I have to be. You know you've got to be able to focus on what's going on with you and what's around you. You can't let things consume you.

"I've had some tough weeks. But it's been tougher on my team."

Bonnett had worked with Earnhardt's team for more than a year as a test driver.

"They lost a true friend, someone they admired and respected a lot," he said.

Earnhardt was not just laying it on. Friday, Will Lind, the team's veteran mechanic and tire changer of 10 years, said this will be his last race with the pit crew, though he will continue to work at the team's shop near Charlotte, N.C.

"I just thought it was time to re-evaluate things and come off the road," Lind said. "A lot of things have happened over the last two years to make me think. Last year, with Davey [Allison] and Alan [Kulwicki], and now this thing with Neil. I still have the desire, but I guess I want to step aside before I lose it."

Childress, who drove against Bonnett as well as worked with him, could barely contain the emotion in his voice as he talked about the effect Bonnett's loss has had on the team.

"We were all really close to him and the shock of it, I think it did have an effect on us during the Busch Clash last Sunday," Childress said. "Dale didn't know what lap he was on, and I know he says it didn't have anything to do with Neil, but we should have been telling him where he was. I think all of us were in a trance. Racing wasn't in our minds.

"I don't ever want to put Neil out of my mind and we won't [today]. But we've got a job to do and Neil wouldn't want us to be distracted. I think we're ready."

In fact, if anything, as the days have worn on here, they have become more committed to winning this 500.

Bonnett is the one who did most of the testing with this Chevrolet. He picked the springs. He set up the chassis. When Earnhardt's car rolled off the truck here, it was perfect.

The team didn't even bother to practice Wednesday afternoon. After Earnhardt won one of the twin qualifying races on Thursday, they changed the motor, but left much of the car's setup intact.

"You know, if the Lord's willing, and we win this race, I can truly dedicate it to Neil, because Neil has had such a hand in preparing my car," Earnhardt said.

"You know, he's pretty much with me all the time, in mind and thought, and I think he'll be even closer [today].

B6 "I'm going to take him along with me in my heart."

DAYTONA 500

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Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Time: 12:15 p.m. today

TV: Channels 11, 9

Pole-sitter: Loy Allen Jr., a rookie

Defending champ: Dale Jarrett, starts 41st

Favorite: Dale Earnhardt, starts second

In the running: Ernie Irvan, Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace

( Long shot: John Andretti

DAYTONA 500 LINEUP

The lineup for today's Daytona 500 NASCAR stock car race at Daytona International Speedway, with type of car and qualifying speed, where applicable, in mph (positions 3 through 30 earned in 125-mile qualifying races):

No. .. .. .. .. .. ...Driver Car .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Speed

1 .Loy Allen Jr. .. ..Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. ...190.158

2 .Dale Earnhardt ....Chevrolet Lumina .. .. .. ...190.034

3 .Ernie Irvan .. .. .Ford Thunderbird

4 Sterling Marlin .. .Chevrolet Lumina

5 Rusty Wallace .. ...Ford Thunderbird

6 Jeff Gordon .. .. ..Chevrolet Lumina

7 Mark Martin .. .. ..Ford Thunderbird

8 Bill Elliott .. .. .Ford Thunderbird

9 Terry Labonte .. ...Chevrolet Lumina

10 Brett Bodine .. ...Ford Thunderbird

11 Todd Bodine .. .. .Ford Thunderbird

12 Morgan Shepherd .. Ford Thunderbird

13 Ken Schrader .. ...Chevrolet Lumina

14 Michael Waltrip ...Pontiac Grand Prix

15 John Andretti .. ..Chevrolet Lumina

16 Derrike Cope .. ...Ford Thunderbird

17 Chad Little .. .. .Ford Thunderbird

18 Wally Dallenbach Jr. .. Pontiac Grand Prix

Robert Pressley .. Chevrolet Lumina

20 Ricky Rudd .. .. ..Ford Thunderbird

21 Jimmy Spencer .. ..Ford Thunderbird

22 Lake Speed .. .. ..Ford Thunderbird

23 Bobby Hamilton .. .Pontiac Grand Prix

24 Ted Musgrave .. ...Ford Thunderbird

25 Jimmy Hensley .. ..Ford Thunderbird

26 Kyle Petty .. .. ..Pontiac Grand Prix

Dave Marcis .. ....Chevrolet Lumina

28 Jimmy Horton .. ...Ford Thunderbird

29 Dick Trickle .. ..Chevrolet Lumina

30 Rick Mast .. .. ...Ford Thunderbird

31 Greg Sacks .. .. ..Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..189.677

32 Darrell Waltrip .. Chevrolet Lumina .. .. .. .. ..189.020

33 Bobby Hillin Jr. ..Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..188.281

34 Joe Ruttman .. .. .Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..188.202

35 Jeff Burton .. .. .Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..188.107

36 Harry Gant .. .. ..Chevrolet Lumina .. .. .. .. ..188.029

37 Chuck Bown .. .. ..Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..188.021

38 Hut Stricklin .. ..Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..187.797

39 Geoff Bodine .. ...Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..187.422

40 Jeremy Mayfield .. Ford Thunderbird .. .. .. .. ..187.336

41 Dale Jarrett-x .. .Chevrolet Lumina .. .. .. .. .no speed

42 Bobby Labonte-x .. Pontiac Grand Prix .. .. .. ..no speed

x-provisional starter

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