WELCOME, N.C. - Kerry Earnhardt can't keep his hand off the smooth finish of the black Chevrolet sitting in the garage at Richard Childress Racing. And the very sight of this combination - an Earnhardt, a black Chevy and a car owner named Richard Childress - is enough to generate both deja vu and anticipation.
You see the name Earnhardt printed above the driver's-side window and the No. 33 on the car door and you look twice, to make sure it is 33 and not No. 3, the number made famous by the late seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who teamed with Childress for six of those titles.
"I chose the No. 33 because I thought it would be pretty neat with Kerry in the car," said Childress. "I've always said the No. 3 is retired unless, or until, an Earnhardt steps into it one day. Maybe it will be Kerry, or maybe it will be one of Dale's grandkids."
Today, Kerry Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt's oldest son, will get his next best chance to follow in his famous father's footsteps. Earnhardt, 34, will take the RCR-prepared car onto Talladega (Ala.) Speedway, a track where his dad won 10 times, and attempt to qualify for the Aaron's 499 Nextel Cup race, being run Sunday.
It is the first of five to seven races in a program put together by Childress and Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and a longtime friend and sponsor of the original Childress-Earnhardt partnership.
It is also the first attempt to rejuvenate a career that had seemed to be at a standstill.
Sitting in his team's garage in this small town near Winston-Salem one afternoon earlier this season, Childress recalled several of his many conversations with Kerry's father.
"Dale wanted to give Kerry the same chance, the same opportunities he'd given Dale Jr.," said Childress, referring to Kerry's half-brother, who is now a superstar in the Nextel Cup Series and leading the points standings going into this weekend's race.
Driving for his dad in the ARCA Series, a lesser stock car circuit, Kerry had won five of seven races. That success had prompted his father to map out a program that would be a mix of ARCA, Busch and Winston Cup races in 2001.
"But then the accident happened," said Childress, referring to the crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 that killed Dale Earnhardt. "It was a horrible, horrible time that we all just had to get through. At [Dale Earnhardt Inc.], they had to get their hands around what they had.
"But I know Dale wanted to do this for Kerry, and now I want to make it right."
Last season, Kerry Earnhardt ended up driving for Terry Bradshaw's Busch team, with engineering support and engines from DEI. He made 21 starts overall, finishing in the top 15 six times. But he could do no better than 27th in the points standings and was let go by the team during the season.
"My biggest mistake was trying to make the car do things it wasn't capable of doing," said Earnhardt. "I wanted us to have good finishes, and I wanted to live up to the expectations of others. I should have just raced the track with patience and done the best I could with the car I had. I'd have been a lot better off."
The result was over-driving, wrecks and bad finishes. His confidence eroded, and so did his driving reputation.
"I think Kerry's confidence was pretty beat up," said Ty Norris, former vice president of DEI, who is now vice president of special projects at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "As soon as he had a couple spins, people pointed fingers at him. I hope he gets that confidence back. Kerry is incredibly nice, and I would just love to see him succeed on the track."
Childress is leaving nothing to chance. He sent Earnhardt to test at Talladega before this race and said in a telephone conversation this week that he was more than pleased with the way he performed. He has assigned his son-in-law, Mike Dillon, a former Busch Series driver, to be Earnhardt's spotter in the race. Childress' Busch team pit crew will service the Cup car, and Childress will be on the radio with Earnhardt for every lap he turns during the weekend.
"I know Kerry can be a good race car driver," Childress said. "In [his last team], he didn't get the right kind of support he needed. ... My No. 1 goal is to help Kerry make and finish races. And then we're going to hope it leads to a full-time ride - here, if we can make it work, or somewhere else."
As Kerry Earnhardt moved his hand across the race car's reflective black surface a few months ago and moved his angular body toward the driver's window, Childress couldn't help but be reminded of his old friend.
"There is so much about Kerry that reminds me of his dad," he said. "The way he likes to kid. The way he talks. The way he walks right past my secretary without ever stopping and into my office just like his dad always did."
There are so many similarities, Childress won't entertain any thoughts about this effort not succeeding.
"I think Kerry can excel," he said this week. "My goal is to give him every opportunity to do it, like Dale wanted to do it, and I have full confidence it's going to work for him."