On the 228th lap at Fontana, Kevin Harvick cuts a tire coming through Turn 4 and swerves dead left into the right rear quarter panel of the devil-red number 8. Betrayed by a sudden absence of traction and Sir Isaac Newton's buzz-killer humbug on the subjects of mass and force and momentum, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is launched uphill into the wall. Spinning, he hits first front then rear, hard; hard enough to accordion the car down to about two thirds of its original length; hard enough to bring an audible gasp from the frontstretch grandstand; hard enough even to silence the TV announcers, if only briefly. The car slides down onto the grass, vomiting steam and smoke and oil, and sits ominously, heavily there for what seems like a long time. This is by far the worst hit of his career. In less than 30 seconds, though, the EMTs have him out of the car. Bent double, grimacing, he has had the wind knocked out of him.
Twenty minutes later he comes swinging out the doors of the infield medical center on crutches. He sprained an ankle when he braced his feet against the firewall. Torqued a shoulder joint, too, and the russet bloom of his bruises is just beginning. Nothing serious. He is pissed off and joking, but mostly pissed off, and his one grumbled comment, "I hit hard, goddammit, you know the rest," will no doubt have to be translated into uplifting, PG-rated sports jabber for the morning papers.
Fans throng the fence line as Earnhardt is driven away on a golf cart, applauding, whistling, bellowing encouragement. One man, though, remains still. He is a round little handful of a man, maybe 40 or so, and he holds above the fence, at stubby arm's length, a large mirror framed in rococo gilt. It's the kind of thing you'd see in a sports bar or an overdone rumpus room. Across its bright face in lurid Victorian gold and red stencil it reads BUDWEISER CONGRATULATES DALE EARNHARDT JR. He holds it as high as he can, dazzling in the sun, until Junior is gone. Before anyone can ask why he's brought it here, he, too, slips away. Whatever did he expect Dale Earnhardt Jr., or any one of us, to see in it?
From a sport whose origins are rooted in the misty hills and hollers of the postwar rural South, where the white-lightning ridge runners boomed through the moonless night trying to outrun the po-leece and the gubmint revenuers, NASCAR has evolved into the new model for the synergies of cutting-edge, multi-platform, cross-promotional corporate performance. And Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose fame is now self-sustaining and whose career are will become the responsibility largely of strangers, who is the Next American Hero or the new Eddie Haskell, depending on who does the telling, will be asked, like it or not, to carry it all forward on his perfectly average, 40-regular shoulders.
At Richmond, the first weekend of May, he crashes unremarkably and limps out of that rain-swollen weekend 12th in points for the season. Two weeks later he electrifies the crowd at Charlotte with a late-night, last-lap charge to the front in the Winston, NASCAR's cannily formatted All-Star street fight. By choosing not to punt eventual winner Ryan Newman out of his way with two turns left in the race, Earnhardt Jr. forfeits around $750K but earns the manic affection of the motoring press and several hundred 24-karat column inches on the topics of probity, maturity and good sportsmanship. "Getting to him was easy," says Junior at the media center just before midnight, "getting by him was something different."
"He made a helluva run!" the fans boom from car to car, still waiting at 1 a.m. for the traffic to thin, "one helluva run."
"His old man'da crashed 'im," the state cop says, arms windmilling, uselessly indicating the distant exits.
A week later he runs well until he gets tangled up with a slower car and brushes the wall. The car goes sour; then it overheats and goes away entirely, and he finishes deep in the field at the Coca-Cola 600. At Dover, Del, he finishes 30th and drops to 14th in the points race. At Pocono he's 12th. At Michigan, 22nd. At Sonoma, 30th. Everywhere they scream for him as the season inches on.
His future, whatever it may be, will draft a survey of the entire NASCAR landscape, across which roll and intersect not only the easy streams of popular culture, in which we find the commonplace objects of our desire—cars and money and fame—but also tire wide, hard ribbons of American religion and race and class. NASCAR distills to an essence America's obsession with speed and sex and death. In it beats the heart of our national experience as citizen consumers and hell-bent rebel yellers. In it lies our central postmodern metaphor: racing ever faster in circles, chasing a buck. In it we fire and forge our next generation of American Heroes. In it we rediscover our restless frontier habits, our deep rural need to move fast across the land, fleeing the oppression of boredom, pursuing a different sun gone down on a new horizon and finding at the end of that day peace or satisfaction or perhaps only, ever, always, ourselves.