Cosmic Weirdness On Wheels

After three weeks of coast-to-coast cosmic weirdness on wheels, perhaps the folks who grease NASCAR's financial wheels should invest in the one untapped corner of the merchandising market: a psychic racing hotline so fans can figure out what the gods have lined up for the spring.

The gates to racing heaven and hell opened simultaneously, of course, with the bizarre timing of the tragic accident that took Dale Earnhardt's life, which took place at almost the exact second Earnhardt employees Michael Waltrip and Little E crossed the finish line first and second.

As Waltrip won his first race in a long and generally bland Winston Cup career, the strange but inevitable thought had to occur to every fan at the track or glued to the screen - was this the racing god's way of defining the terms of Earnhardt's legacy?

The events at Rockingham the following week only served to bolster that impression.

As mawkish as Darrell Waltrip's prerace "the sky is crying" hyperbole was, it was impossible not to wonder whether the weather gods had decreed an unofficial day of mourning for the Intimidator on Sunday.

When the weather cleared on Monday, the fast track laid the ground work for a fabulous day of racing that climaxed with a victory for yet another DEI talent, Steve Park, who outdueled defending champ Bobby Labonte in a stretch-run shootout that was short on style points but long on drama and excitement.

Perhaps Earnhardt really was smiling somewhere, especially given the degree to which the finish mirrored his Talladega victory over Labonte the year before.

With points piling up in the bank, the stakes got higher at Vegas, and once again, an odd combination of past and present emerged in the middle of the race.

As Ray Evernham's Dodges began to fade, Jeff Gordon ran a race that looked eerily like an old Gordon/Evernham special. Nursing his car and working his way up from the 24th spot (another coincidence?), Gordon let the track come to him on a cool day when most teams struggled to find a combination that would allow their cars to run loose and free.

The end result was yet another blast from NASCAR's past: the image of Gordon stretching a formidable lead in the last 20 laps, turning all thoughts of still another last lap shootout into a joke.

The image of Gordon winning races going away isn't a picture that either FOX or NASCAR wants to recreate a lot - he represents a much more compelling story line as a comeback contender.

But after the struggles and uncertainty of the last year, it was nice to hear a great driver who has endured some serious adversity say "We're back" - and mean it.

The footnotes to the Vegas race were even more surreal. Nobody expects the grief-stricken Dale Earnhardt Jr. to do anything more than ride around for the next six months, but to see him leave pit road with the remnants of a gas can dangling from the car seemed an especially cruel trick of fate on a young man who has handled tragedy with dignity.

In some ways, it was a bitter flashback to one of his father's toughest losses at Daytona in 1986, when the Intimidator's failure to fully fill'er up let Geoffrey Bodine win the race.

Bodine then strolled over to the K-Mart parking lot across the street from the track and joined his parents in selling souvenirs to unsuspecting fans, an innocent celebration that would be impossible to recreate given today's media madness.

The elder Bodine doesn't even have a ride this year after surviving a horrific Daytona truck tumble a year ago, but last week the K-Mart car containing his little brother Todd cruised into the Top 10 after posting back-to-back Busch wins, a signal that perhaps yet another family torch was being passed in Winston Cup racing.

The comic relief, such as it was, was provided by the tag team of Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace, who pulled the sport's equivalent of a Three Stooges routine, violating the sacred rule that teammates are supposed to stay out of each other's way.

With the Top 10 cleared of a couple of erstwhile contenders, Dale Jarrett made a futile attempt to chase Gordon down, while further back Labonte learned first-hand what Jarrett knew from the year before about how tough it is to win back-to-back championships.

Just behind Jarrett a veritable youth movement was taking place. Park quietly coasted to another top-10 finish, followed closely by three members of the supposedly mediocre 2001 rookie class.

The head of the class was yet another Earnhardt protege, Kevin Harvick (8th), although fellow rookies Ron Hornaday (9th) and Kurt Busch (11) gave no quarter after spending the previous two weeks in the middle of some nasty pileups.

Perhaps the ultimate beneficiary of all this cosmic racing madness is FOX, which has received even more excitement than it bargained for in the network's first year of covering the sport.

As awful as the Earnhardt tragedy was, it opened the door for the network to honor the sport's past and educate fans about what made the Intimidator who and what he was, with large assists from DW and Larry McReynolds.

But the subsequent triumphs of Park and Gordon, combined with the other story lines at Rockingham and Las Vegas, gave the network enough good news to avoid having to linger on the death of a legend.

Perhaps the ultimate mystery man in the midst of all this motorsports madness is Jeff Burton, the consummate thinking man's driver who was an odds-on favorite to win his first championship this year.

Two years ago at Vegas he outdueled his brother Ward in yet another family shootout, but after a season in which he blew by teammate Mark Martin to emerge as Roush's number one star, he suddenly looks like a man with a bad car who's forgotten how to drive.

My guess is he's next up for some kind of cosmic break... but we'll have to check in with the karma gods in the next week or two to find out.

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