ROCKINGHAM, N.C. — ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - It's less than a week since Dale Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500, but yesterday, NASCAR'S crews and drivers started going back to work.
"It's a good thing for us to be here," said Michael Waltrip, who drives one of the three cars owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc. "It's good for me, our crews and our families. When we walk in the garage, we're back in our element.
"I'm glad we're here because it will get our healing progress further down the road."
Yesterday, Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park met the media for the first time since Earnhardt was killed at Daytona. They each made a statement but didn't take any questions.
"It's easy to say I wish I didn't know Dale so well, because it wouldn't hurt so much," said Park, who like Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip won his first Winston Cup race driving for Earnhardt.
"But he's taught us all how to be winners. So it's our responsibility to be here and do what Dale taught us. We can't sit back and think, 'How are we going to go on?' He's still guiding us spiritually, and he'd be mad if he knew what a big deal we're all making."
One who might be allowed to make a big deal, Earnhardt's son, looked ragged yesterday. He was wearing a bright red baseball cap in the popular backward style and a tangerine-orange sweatshirt over baggy blue jeans.
"I'm trying to proceed with the vision my father had at DEI," said Dale Jr., 26, who drives very much like his father drove a race car. "We're going to stick beside Teresa [his stepmother and the co-owner of DEI] the best we can and go forward."
He said it has been "a quite difficult time," but that he has learned a lesson in the process.
"One of the things it teaches you is how selfish you are," he said, and his voice quivered. "I miss my father. I cry for him out of my own selfish pity, which is the reason for those emotions. But I'm trying to keep a strong focus on the future and remember that he is in a better place, the place we all want to be."
For Waltrip, the focus has to be on the task at hand - qualifying his DEI-owned car for tomorrow's Dura Lube 400.
Earnhardt Sr.'s DEI team was new this season. That means that even though Waltrip won last week's Daytona 500, he will make tomorrow's race only if his qualifying speed is fast enough. He has no team owner's points from last season to fall back on for a provisional starting spot.
"We have to do a good job," Waltrip said. "We tested here for two days and we were happy with it, but it took two days for us to find what we liked. I'll be leaning on my teammates for information. I'm finding out how wonderful teammates are."
Waltrip also has a history of futility to overcome. His Daytona 500 win was his first in 463 attempts, aided by Dale Jr. running in second place and by Dale Sr. maneuvering in third place until the fatal crash on the last lap.
The death of the NASCAR legend has preoccupied the sport all week, and talk centered on safety as the traveling band of Winston Cup racers began arriving here last evening.
Driver Todd Bodine said yesterday that he thinks there should be a drivers' safety committee formed that can take ideas to NASCAR and have some impact on the safety standards in the car.
"We don't have a voice in the rules," he said. "And for safety changes to be made, it has to be a rule. I have a lot of ideas of how our cars can be safer and I'm sure others do too, but guys aren't going to do it on their own. It needs to be a rule. We need to be able to take it to NASCAR."
NASCAR president Mike Helton noted early in the week that postponing the race had been discussed but immediately rejected because so many people in the sport use their work to temper their heartache.
This is not the first time Winston Cup drivers have given this demonstration. You could go back decades, but you only have to go back to last April. Driver Kenny Irwin was killed during a Friday practice at New Hampshire Speedway and two days later, everyone raced, including Earnhardt.
"That was a tough day for Dale to race and for every race driver to race," said Earnhardt's car owner Richard Childress, recalling the race in which the safety of drivers was also an issue. "And the toughest thing I can think of doing is to start this race Sunday without Dale."
It is, of course, the same for Earnhardt's crew.
"It's kind of my job to keep everyone's head on straight," said Kevin Hamlin, who was Earnhardt's crew chief. "But there are a lot of good people helping me. We're just going to go out this week and do the best we can."