Monday, April 04, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Dale Earnhardt Jr. shows he’s not his father

MARTINSVILLE -- Two telling scenes unfolded here at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon. One happened on the track; the other, in the stands.

The first occurred during a 24-minute, red-flag delay near the middle of the race. As workers cleaned up the mess between turns 3 and 4, a mysterious man appeared in the grandstands on the opposite side of the track.

He was a dead ringer for Dale Earnhardt Sr.

He looked good, this Intimidator imitator. He was slender, dressed in a full Goodyear firesuit and had his hat pulled down low. He had a moustache and a crooked smile. He was so convincing as Dale Sr. that fans actually flocked to him, shook his hand and had their pictures taken with him.

More than 10 years after his tragic death at Daytona, Dale Sr. -- real or imagined -- is still a man they long to see. He's Elvis.

About two hours later, many of those same fans were on their feet, pumping their fists, encouraging their hero. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading! And not only was he leading, he appeared to be pulling away as the laps ticked off the scoreboard. Ten to go ... then nine ... then eight...

It was about to be one of the most popular finishes in the history of this racetrack.

And then it wasn't.

Why? Because Kevin Harvick was faster. And because Dale Jr. isn't any more his father than that masquerader in the Goodyear firesuit.

Junior's longtime followers already know this. They've seen him take the high road late in races before. But if they needed any reminder that win-at-all-costs cage rattlin' isn't in Earnhardt's repertoire, there it was on lap 497, right after Harvick made his pass for the lead.

Earnhardt had a fleeting opportunity to counterstrike. He got under Harvick and gave him a couple of taps.

But he realized he wasn't fast enough to get by cleanly, so he backed off. Harvick took the checkered flag, and Earnhardt stiff-armed Kyle Busch for second.

"I was trying to keep my nose in there without turning him sideways and allowing Kyle to get in the mix," Earnhardt said. "I don't know what I could have did different."

Well, there is one thing. He could have done what his father would have done. He could have hit Harvick harder.

We don't know if Earnhardt Sr. would have won this race, but one way or another, the outcome would have been different. Someone would have left this track furious. The fans would have had to take sides. And a debate would have raged all week about who was right and who was wrong, who's the son of a gun and who isn't.

Instead, the fans applauded Harvick's game effort, cheered Earnhardt's top-5 finish, packed up and left. And the top finishers all headed off to Texas ... well, pretty satisfied.

"I'm just happy to be running well and happy to be in the mix," Earnhardt said.

This isn't just an apple falling far from the tree. This is the apple rolling into the next county.

In the apple-tree department, Harvick might have the edge. When asked about his developing reputation for closing strong, Harvick -- whose father, Mike, bought him a go-kart when he was in kindergarten -- remembered some old advice.

"My dad always told me that the pay window didn't open until the checkered flag was flown," he said. "It's just the way I was taught to race."

Earnhardt, meanwhile, has an MO all his own. It's much more respectful than the one his father took. It's one that keeps him almost as popular in the garage as he is in the stands.

"I want to see Dale Jr. win," Harvick said. "I think it would be great for the sport. ... We all need him to win, but I'm not going to back down."

On this day, Junior did. And in the long run, maybe that leaves him in a better place. He's not owed any payback that could ruin a future race. He's climbing in the points standings. He's showing more promise than he has in years.

His supporters can take heart in those encouraging realities. As for their fantasies about seeing another Dale Earnhardt Sr.?

Maybe that guy with the moustache will be back in the fall.

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