RICHMOND, Va. — I’m pretty sure Elvis is dead, but I’m beginning to wonder about Dale Earnhardt.
I could have sworn I spotted him here Sunday. Twice. First he took out Kyle Busch so surgically that most of the NASCAR media corps, after watching replays, maintained that Busch had brought his spinout on himself. But you’re looking at one old boy right here who knew better — knew the Earnhardt fender-fade move when he saw it. Actually it’s not even a move, just a tiny hint of letting the car drift for half a second. You blink, you miss it. You see an Earnhardt on somebody’s quarter-panel enough times, you learn not to blink at such critical junctures. Then, after the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, Earnhardt told in classic fashion, in great detail, how he was at fault in the removal of Busch from contention for the win. But not one note of remorse sounded in his voice. Then he said he didn’t mean to. Of course he said he didn’t mean to. Tell me when you’ve ever heard an Earnhardt say he meant to? That’s the beauty, the art, the grace of the Earnhardt Method: we’ll never really know. “Didn’t mean to” take out Sterling Marlin in 1987, at the dawn of the head-hunting era. “Didn’t mean to” take out Al Unser Jr. in an IROC race in ’95. “Didn’t mean to” take out Terry Labonte twice, blatantly, at Bristol, Tenn., in the ’90s. Anyway, Sunday, this supposedly was the son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the 88 car. But it was the old man, all right. Either that, or Dale Jr. was correct when he said he believed his daddy’s ghost got him out of that burning sports car a few years back. Maybe this time the old man touched the steering wheel just a smidgeon, just the twitch of a forefinger to the right. Somehow, some way, the old man was in that 88 on Kyle Busch’s quarter panel Sunday — call it an apparition, call it riding with his son, call it the cold science of genetic replication. Or just call it learning from the maestro. Whatever. Rather, “everwhat,” as Dale Earnhardt always insisted on inverting that word. The circumstantial evidence was that Earnhardt Jr. owed Busch one, for spinning him out of the lead late in the race here in May. The other bit of circumstantial evidence was that Busch was leading this time. The great practitioners of payback always said you don’t do it while the offender is back in the pack. You wait until he’s out front, where it costs him more, and embarrasses him more in front of the crowd. Now I’m not saying Earnhardt — whichever one, or both — meant to take out Busch. I’m just saying Earnhardts never say they meant to, so you never know. And maybe sometimes they don’t even know.
It’s like Darrell Waltrip once said of the old man: “He had a good brain, but he had some baaaaaaad thoughts.”
And some thoughts are subconscious. The nearest thing I’d seen to what happened Sunday was in the 1995 IROC race at Daytona. The old man launched Unser Jr. into the Turn 3 wall, and the media corps of the time proclaimed Earnhardt’s innocence based on replays from his in-car camera. “He didn’t even turn the wheel!” his acquitters shrieked in the media center. “Didn’t need to, my naïve children,” said the old boy who knew the fender-fade. Just let the car drift an inch or two in the right spot at the right moment. The French have a better word for this sort of thing than we do: legerdemain. It roughly translates as “sleight of hand,” but the implication is even more deft and wily. Next in the Earnhardt procedure comes the “If I’d meant to, he’d have known it” posture. “If I wreck somebody, I ain’t gonna leave him in good enough shape to come back and get me in the same race,” said Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday, or maybe the old man as ventriloquist throwing his voice through the son. “So that wasn’t really my intention … if I wanted to do it, I would do it really, really good.”
When Earnhardt turned Busch around, the Richmond International Raceway crowd exploded in cheers as at no other moment Sunday. What could be better than their most beloved driver taking out the one they most love to hate? No stars in any entertainment field have ever understood their tidal sway on the masses better than the Earnhardts. So one or the other or both of them deadpanned that the thunderous reaction was “pretty impressive.” Uh huh. Was it revenge? “Who knows?” said Busch himself. And neither he nor any of us ever will. Remember that word, class: legerdemain. Much cooler than mere sleight of hand.