Good Vs Evil

The late Dale Earnhardt was many things to many people.

To his fans, he was a hero, a brilliant champion who raced his way to glory by breaking most of the rules and making up a few of his own along the way.

Off the track, he was a racing mentor, a man capable of extraordinary acts of generosity toward his friends in the sport that usually went unpublicized.

To his detractors, he was a villain, an overglorified, hyperaggressive SOB who bumped his way to seven titles by knocking his competitors out of the way and terrorizing them with the threat of a wreck when he wasn't actually putting them into the wall.

As for his off-track exploits, you don't have to go too far in the garage before you hear some amazing "untold" story about how the "Man in Black" screwed over his enemies.

In short, picture a racing version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

To trace the road Earnhardt's split personality has taken since his death, one need look no further than the respective paths taken by the two racing organizations that framed his career.

The unlikely Dr. Jekyll in the new "Earnhardt as hero" tearjerker is none other than Dale Jr.

With the exception of a small but entertaining slip-up on the pages of Playboy, Junior has handled his father's death with his own unique blend of grace and humor. In the process, he may have become more human to the public than his dad ever was.

The prodigal son also grew up as a racer. Last year success found him early and often, but he spent the second half of the season mired in the aftermath of a lot of meaningless wrecks, giving Earnhardt haters a deja vu-inspired sense of dread.

But this year it was a different story. Once he emerged from his grief, Earnhardt Jr. became a competitive racer who balanced his relentless need to win and run up front with an new understanding of the importance of points racing.

When his detractors said the restrictor-plate fix was in at Daytona in July, he got angry and spoke his peace, then let it go and went back to the business of climbing into the Top 10.

When he laid the chrome horn on his competitors at the wrong time in the wrong place, he had the good sense to admit he was wrong, and if a minor postrace war of words did erupt, he never let it fester into a Ricky vs. Rusty-style fiasco.

That same sense of balance was reflected at DEI. When Steve Park went down in the middle of the summer, Ty Norris and the folks at DEI took the lead and applied the lessons from Ricky Craven's post-concussion struggles by refusing to rush a good driver back into his car.

Rather than playing head games with Park by hiring a new young hotshot, DEI did the right thing, plugging in a decent mid-career driver, Kenny Wallace, into Park's ride.

That move become the piece of the puzzle in another feel-good story when Wallace, a solid talent whose commitment and work ethic has been questioned in the past, woke up to the possibilities offered by first-class equipment and ran up front with his brother Mike while the illustrious Rusty faded down the stretch.

As the season wound down, DEI followed up by giving Wallace a secure contract as a backup driver, allowing time for Park's recovery and giving the company some wiggle room if he ends up laid-up for a significant portion of next year.

Meanwhile, over at Richard Childress Racing, the old evil empire mentality seems to be alive and kicking (or bumping, in this case).

The Kevin Harvick story started out like a made-for-TV movie, but at this point it would be easier to list the drivers who weren't ticked off at Harvick for something or other than to tick off the ones who were.

You could also find a lot of folks in the garage who think that half the drivers in Winston Cup could have brought Earnhardt's old ride home on the Top 10, and many of them would add that they could have done it without losing a quarter of the sheet metal or half as many friends as young Mr. Harvick managed to boot during the summer.

Harvick's attempts to make nice with his newfound enemies made for a solid start to his crash course in racing diplomacy, but in one important respect they came up decidedly short.

It was refreshing to hear him admit he said some stupid things, but rookies who insist that the chrome horn is a part of their racing arsenal have a way of ending up in some serious sophomore slumps.

As for the long-beloved Robby Gordon, anyone who thought he might have learned a lesson from his earlier Winston Cup fiascos must have slept through the finish at Loudon after gorging on leftover turkey.

While it was nice to see someone reawaken Jeff Gordon's long-lost dark side, the guess here is that the aftermath isn't going to go well for a non top-10 driver whose name isn't Jarrett, Stewart or Wallace.

Richard Childress has long been famous for his fondness for aggressive drivers, to the point where he's been quoted as saying it's easier to pull a rope than try to push one. But with these two guys, the sight of RCR crew members pushing battered cars behind the wall could become all too common next year.

One thing's for sure: it's a good story line. NASCAR's first full season of "Life Without Dale" has all the ingredients for a serious ratings and fan-interest hangover, especially since it's going to take Jeff Gordon at least three more years to put himself in position to get that all-important eighth title.

In the meantime, leave it to the Intimidator to leave us with a potentially compelling saga of good versus evil, all within his own spicy little racing clan.

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