His cars are missing a part


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Richard Childress walks through the garage alone. He never really thought it would be like this - never spent any time considering how he and his race team would operate without his longtime friend and driver, Dale Earnhardt.

Oh, the two of them had talked about it a few years back when they were on a hunting trip in New Mexico and Childress had "wrecked his horse" and cracked his head while falling off the side of a mountain. They had told each other at the time that if anything happened to one, the other was to continue with the business.

There had been other such conversations over the years, but until last February, when seven-time Winston Cup champion Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Childress had never really seriously considered what that meant. Or how hard it would be to put into practice.

"It's not starting over," Childress said, after making his way to his luxurious motor home outside the garage area at Daytona International Speedway.

"But it's completely different. The philosophy is a lot different. We were solidly founded on one car, the No. 3 car. Now, we've got three cars, and they're all working in the same shop together. This has got to work. We want all three cars in the Top 10 every day, like we had on pole day."

On pole day, Childress' drivers were in the Top 10, and one of them, Kevin Harvick, won the outside pole for Sunday's Daytona 500. Today, Robby Gordon, who was sixth fastest in qualifying, and Jeff Green, who was 10th, will try to secure their starting positions for Sunday's race in the Gatorade twin 125-mile qualifying races.

"But it's different," Childress said. "The amount of experience we don't have - Dale's 20 years of experience - isn't here. But we do have all good race drivers."

The strength of the team is a blessing. But every day when Childress comes through the tunnel onto the racetrack, he remembers his old friend.

"It's emotional," he said. "It's got to be emotional, but you have to go forward. My feelings about racing have changed. Yeah, I'm still as gung-ho to give everything I can to my drivers, to do the very best we can. But there's still something missing. What it is, I can't put into words."

Together, Childress and Earnhardt won six of Earnhardt's seven titles. Through the years, they had become best friends. And together they had built Richard Childress Racing into the most respected organization in NASCAR.

After Earnhardt's death, Childress went home and, for a little while, just wanted to stay there. He thought about quitting the sport altogether. But then he remembered those conversations with his friend and thought about all the people who depend on him. And he decided to go back to work.

"I know the responsibility I have, the same deal that Teresa [Earnhardt's widow and now owner of DEI racing] has. We both know we have to go forward.

"The race fans that have followed us all these years and supported us, we've got to go forward for them. The race fans are the heartbeat of this sport.

"I think those are some of the things that when you have your down days or down weeks, when you think back about what you're here for and what you've got to do and accomplish, that's what keeps you going."

So now, Childress is undertaking more than he ever has: Three teams, though he likes to think of them as one team with three drivers. In his cars are: Harvick, who stepped in for Earnhardt last season and won Rookie of the Year; Gordon, who won his first Winston Cup race while driving part-time for Childress late last season, and Green, a past Busch Series champion who also finished third in the 1997 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year competition.

"The November before Dale died, we had talked about each of us running three Winston Cup teams and a Busch team as a kind of farm team, where we could train tire changers, drivers and other crewmen," Childress said.

"He already had three teams at DEI and he was looking at Busch racing with Kerry [Earnhardt's oldest son], and we had already agreed that we were going to run Harvick in the Winston Cup Series the next year."

It made sense to Childress to move Harvick into Earnhardt's seat, "because his driving style reminded me of Dale."

And yet, he never expected the Earnhardt-like performance Harvick turned in. The rookie won twice and finished ninth in the Winston Cup points race en route to being named Rookie of the Year. While doing that, he also ran the full Busch Series schedule and won that series' title.

"We all leaned on each other in tough times last season," Childress said. "It's in tough times that you find out how good you are. ...

"We know we'll never be able to go back and have it be like it was. But we're all driven by the competition to beat the Hendricks, Yates, Gibbs and Roushs."

Enthusiasm abounds at Childress Racing. Harvick, 27, is anticipating what a full season concentrated on one series can mean.

"I know I learned a lot last season," Harvick said. "I know more about how to finish races, how to be consistent and, on a bad day, how to finish in the top 10 or 12."

Gordon said he is looking forward to proving his critics wrong, by showing he can make it through an entire season with one car owner without getting fired or quitting.

"This is going to work with Richard," said Gordon, 33. "It's going to be good. He knows what it's like to drive race cars. And I've matured."

And Green, 39, hopes to prove he's ready to successfully transfer his talent from the Busch Series to the Winston Cup.

"All three of them has what it takes to stand on the gas," said Childress. "People ask me how I'm going to tame them. I say, 'I don't want to tame them. I just want to direct the fire.' "

For Childress, directing the fire of a strong-willed driver is one thing that hasn't changed.

Race facts

What: Daytona 500, opening race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season

Site: Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway

When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Pole-sitter: Jimmie Johnson

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