Ten years later, it's time for Junior to shine-Doug Gorman Column

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

It's one of those questions NASCAR fans always ask each other.

Where were you when you heard the news that Dale Earnhardt died as the result of a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500?

As the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's tragic death approaches this weekend (actually on Friday), it's a question most don't have to think twice about when coming up with an answer.

For me, I was right here in the newsroom. Pounding out stories on this same computer. Back then, our paper published a Monday edition so I was working on putting some finishing touches on the next day's sports section.

I'm not a huge NASCAR fan, but over the years, I have come to know the drivers and respect the sport. I also know how much the Daytona 500 means to the NASCAR community.

It doesn't take a huge NASCAR fan to know Dale Earnhardt was the sports' most popular driver.

That day I left the office with about 10 laps to go. My plan was to listen to the end of the race on radio, go home and grab some dinner and get back so I could use the Associated Press wire story from the race in the paper.

As I was pulling into my driveway, Earnhardt hit the wall. I thought nothing of it. Crashes happen in this sport all the time. When I saw the wreck replayed, it looked like hundreds of other crashes--bad, but honestly I had watched drivers walk away from worse.

That's when reality set it. I got back to the office and CNN and ESPN were reporting NASCAR President Mike Helton was about to make a "major announcement."

I knew this wasn't going to be good.

Word leaked out that Earnhardt had died even before Helton stepped to the podium to deliver the tragic news.

From there, I shifted into journalism mode, turning a local story as quickly as I could. I talked to fans at a neighborhood sports bar, I got quotes from Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark and I realized that this story was going to evolve into something big over the next few days.

Just how big?

Atlanta Motor Speedway, and other racing venues turned their facilities into shrines for NASCAR's most popular driver. As days passed, his death reminded me of when Elvis Presley passed away.

His fans were left with a tremendous void, almost like losing a family member. Earnhardt's death left that same feeling.

Our paper even did a commemorative special section, asking fans to give their thoughts about the racing icon. We received hundreds of e-mails from both older fans and youngsters who were just discovering the sport.

NASCAR has moved on in the last decade. Jimmie Johnson has become the sports' best driver. His five-straight points titles are something that may never be touched. New generations of drivers have stepped up and taken their place in stock car racing's hierarchy, and the sports has continued to thrive.

Perhaps the saddest part of the whole thing is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had to grieve publicly while trying to carve out his own racing career.

He recently said he is tried of talking about the crash that took his father away from us at 49-years of age.

The second-generation racer has had trouble stepping out of his famous father's shadow, struggling to get to victory lane. Still, legions of race fans show their love, often voting him the sports' most popular driver.

Maybe now, good things are about to happen for Junior.

Sunday when the green flag drops to start the Daytona 500 and the 2011 NASCAR season officially begins, young Earnhardt will be on the pole.

There's something right about that.

The NASCAR community couldn't ask for more. Maybe it's a sign that the healing process is complete.

Fans don't have to ever forget Dale Earnhardt and the way he drove his No.-3 race car around the track, but perhaps its time to move on.

He'd want it that way.

Junior may never achieve the success his father enjoyed, but maybe it's his time to shine without all the comparisons to his legendary dad.

He's paid his dues. He's answered all the questions and lived through all the distractions.

A victory at the Daytona 500 would be a great way to start a brand new chapter in his life and racing career.

Doug Gorman is sports editor of the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at dgorman@news-daily.com