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Wednesday, June 6
King Richard takes one for the team
By Jack Arute

When Richard Petty said that NASCAR needs to get on with life after Dale Earnhardt, the undisputed King of NASCAR stepped out of character. Until you realize the real target of his criticism.

"The press is keeping something alive that we just need to go ahead and bury," Petty said. "I hate to say it in a hardhearted way, but the sun keeps coming up and the sun keeps going down. Out of respect for yourself and fellow men, you're going to think about it and mourn a little bit. But you've got to leave it alone and go on."

"Leave it alone" was the trigger. The smoking gun. Petty was not so much chastising fans for their homage to their fallen hero. Instead, he was echoing NASCAR's hope that prying media will drop their questions concerning the details surrounding Earnhardt's fatal crash in the Daytona 500.

I know, the winner of 200 Winston Cup races -- almost double the career wins of his closest competition, David Pearson (105) -- went on to question Earnhardt's credentials, but the entire scenario setting up his controversial remarks is too contrived to be anything more than an effort to "sell in" a NASCAR defense against the big bad media.

No one disputes that NASCAR's popularity has increased this season -- without Earnhardt. But, in one respect, Dale's death created an increased interest in the sport. Thousands of sports fans sampled post-Daytona 500 races out of curiosity. Curiosity about the sport that Earnhardt championed.

Petty's observations on Earnhardt's charisma and rival Jeff Gordon's position as the anti-Earnhardt are not new. It is something that has been discussed for a number of years.

NASCAR needs to answer many questions regarding the death of one of their stars. It is no coincidence that they have decided to finish their investigation in August. When the Cup cars return to Daytona International Speedway on July 7, a new TV partner takes the baton from Fox. NBC starts its coverage. And NASCAR expects more positive coverage.

Mike Joy, Fox's lead announcer, has never been a NASCAR favorite. His NBC replacement is Alan Bestwick, who has been part of International Speedway Corp.'s Motor Racing Network, which some consider pro-NASCAR. As much as I love Benny Parsons, he stays away from controversy.

You don't believe me? Consider this. Several weeks ago, NASCAR brass and Fox Big Wigs reportedly met behind closed doors. It wasn't hard to know what was going on inside. The shouts were loud enough to be heard outside of the conference room.

One thing is certain. NASCAR had hoped to better control FOX.

But getting back to King Richard.

Petty has taken one for the team. He is NASCAR's last best hope at silencing sports reporters who are not dependant upon a NASCAR credential to make their living. If Richard Petty says the Earnhardt issue is old news, then its old news ... to those who do depend upon a NASCAR credential to make their living.

When the Orlando Sentinel set about its pursuit of Earnhardt's autopsy photos, I called the newspaper's actions disingenuous. I asked if it suspected a cover up. I questioned why it needed to investigate the events surrounding Dale's death.

That was before Bill Simpson and his company were labeled scapegoats. Before rescue workers were harassed. Before NASCAR strong-armed silence. Before Richard Petty said we should move on.

Sorry, Richard. I do not agree.

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