- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
He sped down the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway, and through the bug-spattered windshield of his number 8 Chevy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could see the checkered flag--and a future suddenly filled with promise. On the last lap of the UAW-Ford 500 on Oct. 8, Earnhardt led Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers at the track where his daddy, as he still refers to him, won 10 races and where Little E himself had reached Victory Lane five times between 2001 and '04. Junior had been a nonfactor in his previous three starts at 'Dega, but now he was poised to reaffirm his reputation as the best restrictor-plate racer of his generation.
The red-clad, Earnhardt-mad crowd of 160,000 rose to its feet. Little E was about a mile away from his second win of 2006, which would catapult him to third place in the points standings with six races left in the Chase for the Championship. The season had already been a success for Earnhardt, who had finished 19th in '05, and now he was primed to make his move on the field.
But then, in the most dramatic five seconds of NASCAR's season, all of Earnhardt's dreams were dashed. Roaring into Turn 3, Vickers clipped the back bumper of Johnson's number 48 Chevy. Johnson lost control and smashed into Earnhardt. Both Johnson and Earnhardt helplessly spun into the infield in a cloud of dust and smoke while Vickers took the checkered flag, prompting fans to hurl beer bottles and boos in his direction. Earnhardt finished 23rd, robbing him of any chance of winning his first Nextel Cup title.
So what did Earnhardt do when he pulled his wrecked car into the garage? Take a swing at Vickers? Call him a name from his expansive four-letter vocabulary? "That was just hard racing, man," Earnhardt said. "I've been there, done that before, so I ain't mad at Brian. I'm just happy because our team is back."
No question, Little E lost a lot that day: a chance to win the race, a chance to earn the championship and a chance to further embellish the Earnhardt legend at Talladega. But he won even more. His absolution of Vickers was the classiest move of 2006. And it's acts like this that have made Earnhardt, at 32, one of the most respected drivers in the garage--just as his daddy was in his day. -- Lars Anderson
One Brief Shining Moment
One image is arresting and painful. A majestic dark bay thoroughbred glides from the starting gate at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course on the third Saturday in May, gobbling up chunks of track with his powerful legs and spitting them out behind him. Then, suddenly, Barbaro runs no longer. While the other horses continue, he stands flexing his right hind leg convulsively, as if confused. The limb is clearly damaged, perhaps beyond repair. A story of survival begins.
Another image is more comforting. Two weeks earlier, beneath the fabled twin spires of Churchill Downs, a champion was born at the Kentucky Derby. The unbeaten but lightly raced Barbaro toyed with the field in the most important horse race in the world. After chasing hopeless sprinters for nearly a mile, he galloped to the lead on the turn and powerfully pulled away in the stretch to win by 6 1/2 lengths, the biggest margin in 60 years.
His triumph was one of those rare moments in racing that reveal unmistakable greatness. Veteran trainers stood on the Churchill Downs dirt that afternoon and sought words to describe what they had seen and diplomatic means to concede the first Triple Crown in nearly three decades. "He's got the tough one out of the way," three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said of Barbaro, "so look out."