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FIRST PLACE

David Poole, Charlotte Observer

HENDRICK’S DYNASTY

We begin, rather remarkably, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. quoting Abraham Lincoln.

Earnhardt Jr. is sitting with his new No. 88 Chevrolets gleaming behind him. The media have descended on Hendrick Motorsports and the Sprint Cup Series' most popular driver has patiently entertained questions that truly will only be answered by the season that's about to begin.
To be precise, Earnhardt Jr. is quoting team owner Rick Hendrick quoting our 16th president.
But still.

"Rick has been using his version of this great quote from Abe Lincoln lately," Earnhardt Jr. says. "Lincoln said about this country that we wouldn't be beaten from abroad, we would be torn down from within. That's how this place is."

Lincoln's words, abridged from their original context of war, actually do nicely frame the significant issue surrounding the start of a new season in NASCAR.

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?" Lincoln asked. " I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher."

3 stars

Two already have championships - with an "s" - on their resumes. Jeff Gordon has four. Jimmie Johnson has won the past two. The third, the son of a man who won seven, deeply craves his first.
All that talent. All that competitive desire. All that hunger to win. All on one team.

Is it even possible?

That question is as old as the sport itself.

Carl Kiekhaefer built stock car racing's first dream team. Tim Flock won 18 races in 1955 and the next year Kiekhaefer also hired Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson. Flock bailed after running just nine races. Herb Thomas stepped in. By autumn, Thomas had left, too.

Driving his own cars, Thomas pulled ahead of Baker in the championship standings. Kiekhaefer leased a track in Shelby and persuaded NASCAR to add a race, an extra chance for Baker to catch up. In that added race, Thompson hooked Thomas' bumper in a turn and Thomas crashed, suffering serious injuries. Baker won the title, but the outcry caused Kiekhaefer to leave racing after those two years.
Junior Johnson won six championships as a car owner. In five of those years, he ran a one-car team. Lee Petty won three titles and son Richard won seven, but in none of those championship seasons did Petty Enterprises field more than one car full-time. Richard Childress has six titles, but all came before he went to a multicar operation.

Matt Kenseth won the 2003 championship and teammate Kurt Busch won the title in 2004, making Jack Roush only the third owner to win back-to-back titles with different drivers. Kiekhaefer was the first.
Hendrick was the second, in 1995 with Gordon and the following year with Terry Labonte. When Johnson won his first title in 2006, Hendrick became the first owner to win championships with three drivers.

Hendrick has plenty of first-hand experience with how hard it is to get all trains running. From 1993 through 2001, Gordon's No. 24 team won 19.9 percent of the races it entered. All other Hendrick-owned cars in those years won 2.2 percent. Then, the No. 24's success was cloned. Since the first full year for Johnson's No. 48 in 2002, those two teams have won 15.3 percent of their races. The rest of the Hendrick cars have won eight times in 460 starts - 1.7 percent.

Top talent doesn't always mean chemistry

"It's a culture there now," the man in the blue suit says. "They will not have problems."

Told of the comment, Hendrick grins.

When Hendrick is told who said it, he smiles broadly.

Hendrick went from one to two cars in 1986, just the third year of his team's existence. Tim Richmond fought with his crew chief, Harry Hyde, who didn't trust the other crew chief, Gary Nelson, who was trying to keep Hendrick's original driver, Geoffrey Bodine, from feeling he'd been demoted when Richmond arrived.

Hendrick tried to turn all of those competitive juices into a tide high enough to float all boats. But the championship eluded him.

He then tried his own dream team, luring three-time champion Darrell Waltrip to work with Nelson and top-shelf engine builder Waddell Wilson in 1987. That group never won a title, either.

"We tried to get the best this and the best that and then just put them in a building," Hendrick says. "I had the most talented people, but the chemistry wasn't there. The first time you had a problem, somebody says, 'We didn't do it that way at such and such.'"

Then Hendrick hired Gordon and paired him with Ray Evernham as crew chief. The first championship came in 1995, and after Labonte's '96 title, Gordon won two more.

Evernham is the man in that blue suit as he meets with reporters in another preseason session seeking the secrets to the Hendrick success.

"Rick Hendrick," Evernham says, "is a great man, period.

"It has taken Rick 20 years to create it, but he finally has it. It's a feel-good, family, do-your-best culture. When you have that, it's hard to break."

The irony, of course, is that this collegial culture at Hendrick's team was born in the immediate aftermath of Evernham's departure late in 1999, when he left to start his team.

"Ray is as smart and as intense of a guy as I have ever seen," Hendrick says. "He did things that revolutionized this sport and he deserves the credit for that.

"But he would take from the other guys and he gave very little because we weren't really prepared with the other teams to use it anyway. Before the 2000 season, I decided that from then on we were going to win together or lose together, but we were going to be together. You can't build one mountain and have all valleys around it."

Team concept isn’t taught; it’s understood

Lowe's Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler raises an eyebrow.

"If I have a problem that's weighing me down, I think about the problem Rick is going to have in keeping everybody over there happy," Wheeler says. "You're dealing with three massive celebrities, and as good as they are personally, it's still three people who have one desire - to win and be the star of the show.

"You also have a cage full of tigers when you have that many sponsors. You have a bunch of people who want attention, they all want to be up front and they all want to win.

"Controlling all of that is going to be past fun. Nobody else has even thought about pulling this off except Rick Hendrick."

That's pretty much the point, Steve Letarte says.

"It goes back to our owner," says the crew chief for Gordon's team. "The reason we want to win is for him. We want to make him proud of us. That is the goal."

When Evernham left, Hendrick wanted his team to become, well, a team.

"When we made that decision, every crew chief and everybody who comes on this place has to agree and buy into that," Hendrick says. "I don't have to say it anymore. They know it, they believe in it. They've seen it work."

Chad Knaus worked for Evernham and then Robbie Loomis, who helped Gordon to a fourth championship in 2001. He then got the call to lead Johnson's team as crew chief.

Letarte started at Hendrick Motorsports when he was in high school, sweeping floors and learning whatever he could whenever he could. He has never had a paycheck from any other company. When Loomis left, Letarte became Gordon's crew chief.

Last year, these two specimens of the Hendrick cooperative's greenhouse found their teams locked in one of the greatest championship showdowns in NASCAR history.

Gordon won at Talladega and Lowe's Motor Speedway to take the lead, but Johnson won the next four races. Gordon averaged a 5.1 finish in the 10-race Chase for the Cup and lost the title. Johnson averaged 5.0.

Week after week, fans and media expected cooperation between the two contending teams to shatter. Or, at least, to fray.

It never happened.

"It's how the company is structured," Letarte says. "It's how we do business every day. We just do it. That's what makes it successful. It doesn't take an effort, I don't have to consciously go out and give something to Chad for him to have it. That's why it works well."

It's not about to change, either. Not even for the most discussed and dissected free-agent signing in recent NASCAR memory, the arrival of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt's son.

"If you are going to come to Hendrick Motorsports and be a part of this organization, it's up to you to make it work," Knaus says. "It's not up to us, it's up Dale Jr. and the guys he brought with them. It's up to those guys to fit into what we've got here. You have to come in and show your work and contribute."

The tools are provided; you produce the results.

Tony Eury Jr. and Earnhardt Jr. are cousins. They've worked together off and on, sometimes locking horns, since they were kids.

Eury Jr. was trying to get his team ready for the 2007 season as storm clouds gathered at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Earnhardt Jr.'s contract was up at season's end and long-time tensions between the driver and his stepmother, Teresa, who took the reins when her husband was killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, were bubbling to the surface.

Before last year's Daytona 500, Eury Jr. pretty much knew Earnhardt Jr. wasn't coming back. They battled through a winless season, the first for Earnhardt Jr. since he moved up to Cup after winning two Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) titles. Late in the year, Eury Jr. left DEI to come over to Hendrick and begin preparations for the new No. 88 team there.

"They have simulations over here I have never seen before," Eury Jr. says. "I've had tire data, but it comes in a different form over here. It's explained more. There are just a lot of things. A test team comes back and gives you a report. If we're going to go test somewhere, they go somewhere like it and figure some things out before we even go. It's the support, the engineering they bring to the table."

And it's the culture.

"There's no hiding anything," Eury Jr. says. "It's our job to build a better team and then you have the confidence to believe you have a better driver and a better race team, and you have 400 or 500 miles to figure out who's best. You're all buddies and then you go race on Sunday to see who has the better team and the better driver."

Earnhardt Jr. has never driven a Cup race for Hendrick. But he gets it, too.

"You can see it in Letarte's eyes and Jimmie's eyes," says Earnhardt Jr., who has 17 career victories. "They're looking to see if you're buying into it. They're checking you out, what are your motives and your reason for wanting to be here so bad.

"From the top to the bottom, I don't think people will put up with it if you're not here for the right reasons, if you're not here to be a team player and part of this company. But Rick makes that so easy. Rick rallies people into the position, to get into that mode and go. You want to make him proud. You want to make him pat you on the back, and he does, when it's due."

Hendrick, 58, says he has similar motivations.

"I care about my family a bunch and I care about the people who have helped me get everything to where it is," he says. "They have always been there for me and we've built something really good. I owe it to them.

"It's the motivation of seeing Steve and Chad and watching Jimmie and Jeff come up. I can't explain it. It's the competitive nature in me. It's people. We have so much respect for each other and so much fun in what we're doing.

"There are hiccups and there are problems, but I don't think I could walk away from it. I don't believe my heart would let me. I don't think I could turn my back on the people who built this place."

Earnhardt Jr.’s first goal is next contract

There is, of course, the possibility none of this will work.

"There is a lot of pressure on Junior," team owner Felix Sabates says. "If he goes to Hendrick's team and doesn't kick everybody's butt, people are going to say that maybe he's not the driver everybody thought he was.

"He's a great driver, and I think he'll do great. He's with the best organization in racing, period. Nobody is going to come close to touching Hendrick Motorsports. But things happen on the track. People expect for him to win every race and that's not going to happen. He is the No. 3 driver in the Hendrick organization."

Earnhardt Jr., 33, is used to having all eyes on him. The expectations might be excessive, but when haven't they been? He'll never change that. So, he picks his own goals.

"The thing that drives me is trying to get another contract signed four years from now," Earnhardt Jr. says. "If I can get that done, I'll know I did my job while I was here.

"The teammates I have are established, good guys. They don't need Dale Earnhardt Jr. and this company doesn't need me. I am fortunate to be here. They brought me in, Rick thinks I can win a championship. He thinks I deserve it and he wants to be the guy to give me that. They don't have to have me. They have champions already.

"I am going to get along well with my teammates, I will make sure that happens. I am going to get along with everybody and there won't be any problems. If we do have any problems, we will figure them out and get them settled."

Johnson has won two straight championships and 33 races in six seasons. Gordon has 81 victories, an average of five per year in 16 Cup seasons. If he gets that many in 2008, he'll move into third on the all-time list behind Richard Petty's 200 and David Pearson's 105. But at the Hendrick media day, it was Earnhardt Jr. who drew the biggest crowd of reporters. Casey Mears, whose team will share a shop with Earnhardt Jr.'s this year, might as well be in a witness protection program by comparison.
It's a veritable Petri dish in which jealousies could grow.

"C'mon, man, it's Dale Earnhardt Jr.," Gordon says dismissively. "Let's be honest. He's the most popular guy and the guy who gets the most media attention, and that would be the case whether he's on your team or on any other team. That's just part of it.

"As long as we focus on doing our jobs behind the wheel and working as best as we can as teammates and as individuals, we're going to get the benefits he brings and also hopefully make our team rise to the occasion. To me, it's even more incentive to go out there and be competitive."

With preparation comes confidence

Unless Earnhardt Jr. wins the next seven championships to match the record his late father shares with Petty, someone will always consider him an underachiever.

He understands this.

In other words, he knows there's a perfectly logical reason he should be freaking out as this chapter in his career opens.

"I get nervous, I don't have immunity to it," he says. "But going into this year, there is less pressure. I feel like I am in the Busch Series again. I'd go into the year and know I was going to win seven races. I knew I'd win the championship unless I messed it up. That's the way I feel now. I should go out and do just fine unless I screw it up. And I feel confident I won't."

But what if he does? For now at least, it's just not something he's losing sleep over.

"Should I be worried because these guys are saying I should be or keep asking me about pressure?" Earnhardt Jr. asks rhetorically. "Is there something I am not noticing?

"Every time I say that to myself, I keep coming back to the fact that the cars are going to be great and Tony Jr. is working on them. I love that guy and he's great. How lucky are we to both end up in this spot? I trust Tony and I know Rick is going to do a great job.

"And if I don't do well, Rick will have a nice way of letting me down. There will be real stuff, there will be patches. That's part of life and you have to deal with it. But I am going to enjoy it. It's going to be fun."

GORDON COME FULL CIRCLE ON THE TRACK

The irony is not lost on Jeff Gordon.

"You take Kyle Busch," says Gordon, the four-time Sprint Cup champion. "I will be behind him maybe not running quite as fast and he comes off the corner sideways, taps the wall about the start-finish line and goes on. And he does it lap after lap after lap.

"I am sitting there with a grin on my face because he's not really driving away from me and I am saving my stuff and staying away from the wall. There are times when that pays off for him, but I am comfortable with where I am, too."

He knows that what he's thinking when watching the 23-year-old Busch blossom into NASCAR stardom is the same thing drivers like Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace were thinking when Gordon first emerged as a young star.

Gordon was just shy of his 23rd birthday when he got the first of his 81 career victories, in May 1994 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

He got the 81st here in October of last season, winning the Bank of America 500 for his sixth victory of 2007. It gave him a 68-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson as Gordon sought a fifth championship in a season very much like the days of dominance when he won 40 races and three championships between 1995 and 1998.

But he hasn't won since, and people wonder what's gone wrong with the driver once nicknamed "Wonder Boy."

"Yes," Gordon admits, "I find myself saying the same things about the young guys they used to say about me. The reason I can say it is I've been there. I understand."

There is, however, the other side of that coin.

As each of the sport's greatest stars moved forward in his career, at some point each faced times when things didn't come as easily as they seemingly once did.

Earnhardt won at least twice each year from 1983 through 1991, winning 45 races and four championships in those nine seasons. He won only once and finished 12th in the standings in 1992, but then came back to win titles in 1993 and 1994.

Wallace followed his 1989 championship season by winning only five races over the next three seasons and finishing outside the top five in points each year. But he won 10 races in 1993 and eight the next year.

Darrell Waltrip won 43 race and three championships from 1981 through 1986, but he only won once in 1987 when he defected from Junior Johnson's team to Rick Hendrick's. Over the two seasons following that, he won eight times.

"You go through periods when you're not as successful because that's life," Jeff Burton says. "There are a lot of things that have to line up to make everything work.

"Jeff is a victim of his own success. ... It's unrealistic to expect anyone to go out every single year and knock off six or eight wins. ... This is hard. When people make this look easy it's because they're good and everything lines up. They make it look easy and when it no longer does, it's not because they can't do it anymore. It's because it's hard."

There are those who would offer other explanations for the 35-race winless streak Gordon finds himself trying to snap in Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

Gordon did hit the wall jarringly hard this year in a race at Las Vegas, and it has often been said that drivers change after taking a jolt like that.

"I've hit a lot more walls than some of the young guys these days, and when they hit maybe it doesn't hurt as much as it did when I started," Gordon says. "I am only scared when I see a hit like the one at Vegas coming."

He also has made gobs and gobs of money - by this time next year Gordon will almost certainly have become the first NASCAR driver to win more than $100 million in his career. He'll pass the $98 million mark this weekend.

"There are guys out there who you say 'Why is he out here riding around?' " Gordon says. "I've seen that. Is it just the money is too good? Every guy tells himself, 'I don't want to be in that position. I don't want to be doing it for the money or the glory or holding on to something that's not there.' But I've seen guys do it."

Burton says anybody who thinks that's Gordon's problem is off base.

"Jeff might raise his hand and say 'I'm done' a year from now or two years from now," Burton says. "But if he does, I can assure you that in what he has left he would give 100 percent. I race with Jeff every week and he's not laying down."

Gordon insists he'll keep right on asking himself the same three questions he always has when it comes to deciding how much longer he'll keep going.

"Am I competitive? Am I healthy enough? And am I enjoying myself?" Gordon says. "When any of those change, I am going to step away."

The theory that gets under Gordon's skin most is when someone suggests he might not be racing as hard as he did before the birth of his daughter, Emma, 16 months ago. But ask him if the rumblings that he doesn't like to drive a loose race car are true and it's clear he thinks you're getting warmer.

"That's true, I have never liked to drive a loose race car," Gordon says. "I want it to be perfect. I am always searching to get the car right and make it be fast. ... There is a certain feel I like, with any car I've ever driven, and that is I like to drive feeling that right-front tire. With this car, that's the biggest challenge we've had."

Gordon won six times and set a modern-era record with 30 top-10s last year as NASCAR's new car had a roll-out on shorter tracks.

This year, when the new car moved into full use, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have found themselves searching for the right combinations on bigger tracks such as Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"Nobody can drive a loose race car," Gordon says, challenging the conventional wisdom that this is the key to success these days.

"That whole thing of loose is fast is crap. I've seen guys this year - like Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth at times - their car is free but it has grip. That's the difference, the difference between being loose and just sliding sideways and in being able to push the car out there to the edge and the car is still in the race track. When we've got our car freed up, we just don't have the grip."

So why not, the critics muse, just take what Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are doing with their cars and mimic it? Johnson, after all, is leading the Chase for the Sprint Cup while Gordon is 232 points back in eighth. Or why not try to figure out what the teams that are doing well are up to with their cars?

"If you try to copy your teammates and the garage area, you're going to become average," Letarte says. "We've never been average. In 2006, we had some great runs and some awful runs, and that was a product of trying to be great.

"It doesn't matter what everybody else is doing. Jeff doesn't drive their cars and he doesn't drive like them. We're going to give him what he needs in the wheel.

"Why don't we run Jimmie's set-up? If it's their set-up and we're copying it, then you will never be better than them. We're not here to run fourth. If they thought it up, there's a piece of it you're going to be short on. They're going to beat you with their set-up."

Some fans figure Letarte is the problem, ignoring the fact that he was in the same job last year when Gordon was denied a title only by Johnson's remarkable run of four straight wins that followed Gordon's victory here.

"That's why I am glad we've got Tony Jr. here," Letarte jokes, invoking the name of Tony Eury Jr., the similarly scrutinized crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. "We can hang out together."

Gordon defends Letarte as strongly as Earnhardt Jr. backs Eury Jr.

"If I didn't feel like Steve was the guy or Rick Hendrick didn't feel like it, he wouldn't be here," Gordon says. "We believe in him and I think the guys on this team still believe in me. We just have to get it where it all clicks together."

That's it, says Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers team.

"It's all about combinations and people and circumstances," Wood says. "Everything has got to be right to be right."

The way to get it right, Gordon says, has never changed.

"I know what it took last year," he says. "We still have the same ingredients and tools and we just haven't as a group made it happen this year. The only way we're going to make it happen is to continue to work hard. It's there. We just have to find it."

Gordon has won at least two races each season since 1994, a string of 14 straight seasons that's in peril. But his career has had downturns before.

He finished ninth in points in 2000, his first year after Ray Evernham left as crew chief, and then missed the Chase and wound up 11th in 2005 in Letarte's first full season.

Gordon says there was more to it than just the change in crew chiefs.

"The valleys I've had have been during the years where there were big transitions where somebody found something," Gordon says. "But usually when somebody found something, it wasn't somebody my age or my same experience level who found it.

"The people who found it were some young guys that they just threw stuff at, and all of a sudden they went, 'Wow.' The rest of us had to figure it out. And in the 1990s, that team was our team. We were the ones figuring it out."

Now? Well, Gordon, 37, says he enjoys testing with young Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski.

"Steve can throw stuff at him that I would look at and just say, 'No.' " Gordon says. "That's not because I am old and don't want to drive it, it's because my brain can't adapt to the concept. Fresh minds generate fresh ideas.

"I feel like I am as good of a driver, or better, than I've ever been because I am a much smarter driver. But at the same time there is no doubt that it is harder for me to adapt to new things than it was 15 years ago."

And irony rears its head once more.

"I guess," Gordon says. "I am just like everybody else my age."

HUMPY – BRUTON SAGA TAKING ONE LAST TURN

"It's amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit."

With all due respect to Robert Yates - the 18th century American politician to whom those words are attributed, not the NASCAR team owner - that's just about the dumbest thing anybody ever said.

Of course people care who gets the credit, especially people who dream big dreams, then make them come true.

Especially people who hear the word "no" and understand it as "I don't think you can."

Especially people whose minds are idea factories, whose backbones are determination and whose hearts pump purpose.

Especially people like Bruton Smith and H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler.

Wheeler announced his retirement Wednesday from Lowe's Motor Speedway and as president and chief operating officer of the company that owns it, Speedway Motorsports.

That was one week earlier than Smith, who owns the Charlotte track and is chairman and chief executive officer of SMI, thought that announcement would be made.

Wheeler was right when he said the more than 250,000 fans who will come to the speedway for today's Carquest 300 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 in the Sprint Cup Series "don't buy tickets to come see me."

But the racing world will be watching to see how Smith and Wheeler coexist during Wheeler's final weekend as president and general manager at the track where the two have worked for more than 30 years.

Things got dicey when Wheeler said he is not leaving entirely on his own terms. That and the fact that Smith did not show up for Wheeler's news conference signaled disharmony in what has at least outwardly appeared to be a fast friendship and partnership.

People who know both men well say the differences pale in comparison to what the two have accomplished together.

Each was pivotal in turning what began as Charlotte Motor Speedway into the model for the modern racing facility.

Smith had the willingness to take financial chances and the checkbook to back it up.

But Wheeler wasn't always in lockstep with Smith's biggest ideas, such as building condominiums in Turn 1 or adding a Speedway Club restaurant. When those ideas are cited as examples of Wheeler's role in transforming LMS into what it is today, Smith finds that hard to swallow.

Wheeler had big ideas, too, like deciding to add lights to a 1.5-mile track before he was even sure it could be done.

His delight, however, was in the detail. Wheeler spoke of being obsessed with the "three Ts" - tickets, traffic and toilets. His mission was to make everything from getting to his events to seeing the show to getting home again go the way it should.

When they found common ground, Smith and Wheeler worked like the gears of a race car. And, for the most part, their differences sparked combustion to propel the business forward.

But ultimately, Smith is the boss.

Each man says they've been talking about a timetable for Wheeler's retirement for months, and plans for that to be announced next week had been made.

The plan changed this week, and Wheeler had a hand in that. That this will be Wheeler's 33rd and last Coca-Cola 600 as an LMS employee is part of the story. So, too, is how Smith and SMI choose to acknowledge that - or choose not to.

Is there ego at play on both sides? Absolutely. Does that surprise anybody?

Smith and Wheeler have had at the core of their being the belief they can give people something they want to see - that they have to see.

And this week, they've both done it again.

A PITIFUL DAY AT A DREADFUL PLACE

FONTANA, Calif. – This place just ain't working.

A lot of good people have worked very hard to make Auto Club Speedway - the track formerly known as California Speedway - something more than a giant waste of stock car racing's time. Bless their hearts, as we say in the South.

But it's time to give it up.

For each thing that went well for NASCAR during Speedweeks, about three have gone wrong here this weekend. Any momentum this season might have had coming out Daytona is, as of the debacle that was Sunday's Auto Club 500, now stuck in the mud.

As this newspaper went to press, efforts were ongoing to resume a race that probably never should have started.

It had been stopped for several hours after 87 laps, 38 laps short of the halfway point at which it could be euthanized and still counted as an official event. Jeff Gordon had led 57 of those laps, but teammate Jimmie Johnson was leading when things were stopped just after 9 p.m. Eastern.
Here's a quick summary of what happened Sunday.

It rained all morning. It stopped. NASCAR dried the track - well, at least most of it. The race started. Water started leaking through the track. A half-dozen or so cars got wrecked, with one getting knocked upside down and another catching on fire. The race was stopped and people sawed grooves in the track trying to drain it. The race resumed. It rained. It stopped raining. It got dark. It rained. It stopped. It rained, this time for about 20 minutes.

But then, against all that is right and holy, jet dryers were sent back onto the track. At the moment Sunday became Monday in the East, they were still drying the track.

That's pretty much all we can tell you here. Newspapers have deadlines, you know.

We can tell you that the now twice-postponed Nationwide Series race is scheduled to be run today at 1 p.m.

That is, of course, unless locusts, frogs or rivers that turn to blood rose up to wipe out this Godforsaken place.

The last time NASCAR came here it was as hot as the face of the sun. This weekend has been, as Dario Franchitti said, "bloody freezing."

You can't help the weather, can you? Well, you couldn't help it in Rockingham, either. You remember the track there, right? North Carolina Speedway, the place that often fought foul weather and consequently had trouble drawing a crowd?

Only there, it had consequences. Rockingham lost race dates when people didn't show up. But instead of threatening to take races away from here, NASCAR keeps doubling over backward to prop up this joint.

People don't show up here either, and who could blame them? God love the ones who hung in there all weekend. They ought to get NASCAR medals or something.

NASCAR tried hard to get this race in. Maybe too hard. Water seeping through cracks in the track had caused problems Friday. These "weepers" were back Sunday, but the green flag flew anyway - two hours late after morning rain.

The wet spots were then blamed for two wrecks, and the race was halted.

"We should not be racing on that race track right now," said Denny Hamlin, whose Toyota wrecked on Lap 14.

On Lap 21, Casey Mears' Chevrolet snapped loose in Turn 2 and slammed into the wall. Three other cars wound up in that crash, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., and after that the race went under a red flag.

"We got going a little too soon," Earnhardt Jr. said. "There were a lot of wet spots out there. You do the best you can."

Earnhardt Jr. got collected when Mears bounced off the wall. Sam Hornish Jr. hit Reed Sorenson, and then before Hornish could stop he ran into the back of Mears' car, picking it up and sending it over on its side. Fire broke out in Hornish's car, but workers got there quickly to put it out and none of the drivers was injured.

It was about that time NASCAR decided to try to fix the track, sending out workers with saws to cut drainage grooves into the racing surface.

You know what would have been better? About 50 sticks of dynamite.

Tom Cruise showed up here Sunday. Normally that would have been enough to send NASCAR and track officials into a paroxysm of ecstasy. Somebody actually famous was here, as opposed to most of the B- and C-list folks usually passed off as celebrities.

But even that wasn't enough.

This was so bad it wasn't even laughable.

It was, to use another term we Southerners like, actually right pitiful.

PETTY STILL TRUE BLUE

JOLIET, Ill. – Weathered like a favorite leather jacket, crinkled with lines of experience but resilient to the ravages of age, Richard Petty still stands tall.

His face is stock-car's Rushmore. His wrap-around sunglasses and custom-made cowboy hat - resplendent with feathered accoutrement - are iconic.

He is a living, breathing trademark.

He is a walking, talking history book.

At 71 years old, "The King" is a fully realized legend.

Petty won 200 Cup races, a number so far beyond logic it almost loses value, and racked up seven championships. The second-generation racer from tiny Level Cross stood for a sporting epoch as the name and the face of his sport, the way Muhammad Ali did for boxing and Arnold Palmer for golf.
It had to start somewhere.

For Petty, the beginning came 50 years ago Saturday on a half-mile dirt track in Columbia, where generations of the Southeast's finest cut their racing teeth.

Three years earlier Richard had asked his father, stock-car pioneer Lee Petty, about driving.

"I'd already done everything there was to do except drive," Richard says. "I'd built cars, I had worked on them, I had painted them and I had worked in the pits."

He had even attended the first Strictly Stock series race - Cup's forerunner - in Charlotte in 1949, having to thumb a ride home after Lee wrecked the car they'd rode in.

Lee told his 18-year-old son they'd talk about driving when Richard turned 21.

"And if you knew my daddy," Richard says, "you knew that was the end of it."

Richard waited until his 21st birthday - July 2, 1958 - and brought it up again.

"Daddy said, 'There's a car, you get it ready and you can race in Columbia,' " he says.

The Grand National Series ran that night at McCormick Field in Asheville. Lee took the family's No. 42 Oldsmobile there and won $265, finishing fourth.

NASCAR's convertible series was running at Columbia.

"Daddy just sent me off on my own, basically," Richard remembers. Dale Inman, who would go on to a career as one of the greatest mechanics racing would know, went too as Richard's crew chief. "If you look at it now in the scheme of racing, it was just Saturday night racing. But to us it was major league."

Petty finished sixth, five laps down to winner Bob Welborn, but brought the car home in one piece along with $200.

Richard's clearest memory of that night is the ride home.

"We were in the pickup truck, me and Dale and one other fellow. I told them, 'You know, I think I am going to like this driving thing,' " Richard says, smiling at his understatement.
His first Grand National start came six days later, at Canadian Exposition Stadium in Toronto, finishing 17th of 19 in a race Lee won. In 1992, after 1,184 races in NASCAR's top series, Petty retired.
"The winning?" Petty says of what came in between. "No, that never got old."

Not even in 1967, when he won 10 straight on the way to 27 victories in 49 races.

"Plymouth took us to New York and that was the first time I'd ever been in New York for the press," Petty says. "That was one of the first times that we were exposed to the rest of the world. We were a Southern sport. Every once in a while we'd get lucky and get our name in the paper in Osk Kosh or something like that. But once we started winning all of those races people started covering it.

"I have a clipping some guy sent us from a paper in Canada and all it says is "Petty runs second." It doesn't tell who won or anything else. It got to that point."

Petty remembers those days with another type of fondness.

"In 1967 we had eight people working for us," Petty says. "That was it. They went to all the races. ... I was there every day, working on the car. ... Those were the real satisfying years because I was involved in the whole program. I owned the car and paid the bills and you did it all."

Earlier this year the Petty family sold a majority stake in the team to Boston Ventures, an investment group with the kind of dollars needed to compete in today's NASCAR world. That pushed "The King" another level away.

But no matter what it might say on the deed to Petty Enterprises, Petty's mark on his sport is indelible. He not only helped define it competitively, he laid the framework for how it deals with the people who love it. While the fan's accessibility to NASCAR's stars has eroded, Petty rightfully is cited as the man who set the standard for that to start with.

"We never got a dollar from a race track or from a sponsor," Petty says. "Every dollar I ever got came from the fans. They're the reason Richard Petty exists. Their money came through the tracks, but without the fans there are no race tracks. They're the reason we had sponsors."

It was Petty's farewell tour in 1992 that expanded the sport's merchandising horizons.

"I wasn't trying to lead anybody. ... We just thought it would be a better deal for us and our people so we could get better cars and win more races. We were just riding the horse through the pasture along with everybody else, but we were leading the crowd without knowing it.

"The good Lord put me in the right place in the right circumstances at the right time. I got stuck here at the right time to ride that horse through the field."

And, after 50 years in the saddle, he still rides tall.