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After Earnhardt crash, racing still reels

The defining moment of the 2001 Winston Cup season lasted a split-second on Feb. 18.

NASCAR's marquee driver lost control of his No. 3 Chevrolet on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and crashed in the fourth turn at Daytona International Speedway.

Less than a mile later, Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line and won for the first time in 463 Winston Cup starts. But like much during first half of the season, Waltrip's emotional victory was overshadowed by the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

"We not only lost a father and a race car driver, we lost our leader," driver Jeff Burton said. "We lost a living legend. We lost our guidance."

NASCAR continues on though Earnhardt's legacy seems to permeate the sport.

While there have been new winners (Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Waltrip) and old faces (Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd) atop the championship standings, and a pair of television partners have lured more fans than ever to the small screen, NASCAR has been scrutinized by many for its operating procedures and reaction since February.

Though NASCAR is conducting its own investigation into four fatal accidents since May 2000, drivers and teams aren't waiting for word from the sanctioning body. They're embracing new safety devices, such as the HANS (head and neck support) and Hutchens devices, to prevent the fatal basal skull fractures that Earnhardt and three other NASCAR drivers sustained since May 2000. Testing continues on energy-absorbing bumpers and soft walls.

NASCAR's $2.4-billion television rights contract debuted magnificently thanks to Fox, FX and Fox Sports Net.

Fox won millions of new viewers with a talented broadcast team of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds in the booth, high-tech graphics, more noise, more cameras and interviews that addressed the pressing issues in the sport.

More than 278-million people watched Fox Sports' coverage of 14 Winston Cup races, more than double last year's total at the midway point. The average race broadcast reached 19.9-million viewers.

NBC and TNT took over at the Pepsi 400.

"Fox brought a lot to our sport the first half of this year," driver Kyle Petty said. "Just like CBS and ESPN got us to one level, Fox has taken us to another one."

Fox capitalized on an endless supply of compelling stories, beginning with the Daytona 500 and continuing the next week at North Carolina Speedway.

NASCAR officials announced at Rockingham that a separated left lap belt had been found in Earnhardt's car. They later said an investigation into the crash would be completed by August.

Earnhardt Jr. wrecked on the first lap of the Dura-Lube 400. Steve Park, his teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc., wound up winning the race.

"When you're working for Dale Earnhardt, it's not about running second," Park said. "You don't get a pat on the back for running second. You might get a pat on the back for winning a race. It's just the way he taught us."

Rookie Kevin Harvick filled in at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt's death and made an immediate impact.

Harvick won the Cracker Barrel 500 on March 11 at Atlanta Motor Speedway _ his third Winston Cup race _ by beating Gordon to the finish line by inches. Harvick won his second career victory in the inaugural Winston Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday.

The 25-year-old is seventh in the Winston Cup Series despite not racing in the Daytona 500. He also leads the Busch Grand National standings.

"Everyone has been saying I'm a flash in the pan," Harvick said. "Well, here's another one and we're going to keep at it."

Gordon, a three-time Winston Cup champion, has assumed Earnhardt's role as the face of NASCAR for mainstream fans.

It helps that he's tied with Jarrett atop the Winston Cup standings with Ricky Rudd 18 points behind.

"I just know that Dale Jarrett is going to be there at the end," Gordon said. "He's won a championship before and he's been a part of all that before. That whole team as a package has that experience. But Tony Stewart might go on a rampage. Rusty Wallace might go on a rampage.

"Who knows who will rise to the occasion and be there at the end of the season?"

With three victories and five poles already this season, Gordon became the first driver to win a race while wearing the HANS device, doing so in the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 on March 4 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The HANS and Hutchens devices are designed to prevent the violent head-whip that causes basal skull fractures. Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper all sustained the injuries.

Six drivers wore the HANS device in the Daytona 500 compared with 33 who wore the HANS or Hutchens device in the Pepsi 400 on July 7.

Earnhardt Jr. won in NASCAR's return to the track where his father died, moving from seventh to first in the final six laps. Waltrip finished second.

It was a storybook ending that led conspiracy theorists to suggest the race was fixed. Earnhardt Jr. scoffed at the idea.

"For somebody to question its credibility, to question my credibility, I feel like that's a slap in my face, a slap in my father's face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury's face," he said. "I never drove harder in my life."

The second half could be even harder, at least physically, on drivers and teams. Twenty straight events close the season.

"I think it's a big grind," defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte said. "I was looking at my calendar over the weekend to try to figure out when to go do something. I don't think it's a big deal right now, but I think it will be toward the end of this stretch."