To his car a week after a fiery wreck that left him with second-degree burns on his neck and legs and with scabs dotting his chin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. "The pain was intense," said Earnhardt, 29, last Friday, five days after he crashed a Corvette in practice for an American Le Mans Series race in Sonoma, Calif., on a rare Nextel Cup off weekend. (Most race car drivers fear flames far more than a crash. "I can handle broken bones, but not fire," says NASCAR vet Jimmy Spencer. "Getting burnt to a crisp would be the worst way to go.")
Walking gingerly, Earnhardt was at New Hampshire International Speedway last weekend. For the first time in his six-year Cup career, his mother, Brenda Jackson, spent the entire weekend at the track, changing his bandages in his motor home and keeping in constant contact with his doctors, who advised him not to drive the entire race because sweat could infect his burns. On Sunday, Junior started the Siemens 300 behind the wheel of his Chevy and drove 61 laps. (He told a friend the painful ride was like "getting burned all over again.") Then—with a little help from 6'5", 275-pound jackman Jeff Clark, who pulled Junior like a rag doll through the driver's side window during the team's first pit stop—he made way for a relief driver, Martin Truex Jr. ( Truex finished 31st, but since Earnhardt started the race he received the championship points, which allowed him to maintain second place in the standings.) After Earnhardt emerged from the car, several of his crewmates gently patted his back and pledged to follow him into any battle, and Junior then cautiously slid into the passenger side of a rental car and disappeared into the sunny afternoon.