“The Power of 3”
By Kellyanne Lynch
22 April 2003, 12:30 PM – 29 December 2003, 11:30 AM
15 – Intentions
Folding his arms across the Pennzoil logo on his chest, Steve gazed into the Budweiser transporter. The hoary walls, floor, and ceiling of the cell gleamed in the midday sun, glaring light rays into the driver’s eyes. Squinting, Steve fixed his eyes upon the pair in the middle of the hauler. He watched as a sandy-haired boy removed a navy sling from his teammate’s right arm. Wincing, Junior groaned. The boy dropped the sling into a wooden chair; Junior worked at the knot in the red sleeves that held the bottoms of his Budweiser uniform to his slender waist. The boy reached for the knot, but Junior pushed his hands aside. Grinding his teeth, the young Earnhardt pulled apart his sleeves. The red arm holsters dropped to his sides. The boy held Junior’s left elbow, and guided the hand into the sleeve. Bracing the DEI driver’s right tricep with one hand, the kid wrapped the fingers of his other around the collar of the fire suit. Junior inhaled a sharp breath.
“Just get it over with,” the driver’s strained voice barely traveled to Steve’s ears. “Fast.”
The boy ran the sleeve over the driver’s right arm. Junior’s face crumpled. Jerking his head back, he howled at the shimmering ceiling. Outside the transporter, Steve noticed how the other’s eyes glistened. He watched as a tear escaped down the side of the Budweiser driver’s cheek.
“Aw man!” Saucer-eyed, the boy’s jaw trembled. “I- I’m sorry, Dale! I…”
Closing his eyes, Junior shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Shane,” he waved his left hand at the Busch Series driver. “You just did what I asked you to do.”
Shane Hmiel gnawed at his lower lip. Leaning toward his friend, his fingers tapped against the fire suit’s zipper.
“Nah, I got that.” Junior swatted Shane’s knuckles, and zipped his fire suit with his left hand. “Look, why don’t you go on back home? You don’t gotta wait around for no race today. There’s no use standing around here with me.”
“You sure you’re going to be okay?” The boy’s voice squeaked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Shane pursed his lips. “Well, if you’re sure…”
Junior swung his left arm through the air, and pointed to the entranceway of the transporter. “Just get out of here already, will ya?” Smirking, the Budweiser driver looked his friend in the eye. “Thanks for the help, buddy!”
“No problem.” Shane jogged away from Junior. A few paces from the door, he hollered over his shoulder, “Make sure to let me know if you need anything, all right?”
“Just go, Shane!” Junior chuckled.
The Busch Series driver reached the doorway, and clamoured down the steps. Trotting past the Pennzoil racer, Shane smiled at the bystander. “Hi, Steve!” he called, nodding to the other.
“Hey, Shane!” Cracking a grin, the older man waved. His sights returned to the Budweiser transporter; Junior was staring at him. Their gazes crossed, and Steve turned from the other. He paced away from the hauler door.
“Hey, wait a minute, Steve!” a familiar drawl shouted.
The driver halted in his tracks. Gazing into the clouds, Steve released a heavy breath and clenched his jaw. His eyelids fluttered shut, and opened as he pivoted on his heel. Junior hobbled the last several steps to the transporter door. Clutching the railing, the young Earnhardt gritted his teeth and dragged his frame down the steps. His feet slid into the dust. Inflating his lungs to capacity with every breath, Junior leaned his left side into the banister.
“I…” He gasped for air, and clutched his right arm to his ribs. “Can you, uh… ride with me on my golf cart?” The driver’s bright blue eyes bore into the other’s.
Steve looked away. “Why?” he questioned. Raising his hand toward the Busch Series garage area, he added, “I thought Shane was helping you.”
“He doesn’t need to be hanging around here,” Junior replied. He paused, and inhaled. “Besides, we’re both headed to pit road to go racing anyway. Jade’s over there already and… and you’re good at dodging the media, when you want to. You know I don’t like to beg.”
Steve sighed. Slapping his arms to his sides, he closed his eyes. “Fine. All right.”
“Thanks, man.” Junior stood upright. Thumbing over his left shoulder, he stated, “My cart’s just around back. Of course, you know I’m driving.”
Junior limped around the corner of the hauler. Steve followed the man in the red fire suit to the skull-printed golf cart parked between the Budweiser and Kellogg’s transporters. Groaning, Junior pulled himself into the driver’s seat. Steve hopped into the spot beside him, and his teammate started up the engine. Junior’s golf cart maneuvered through the pathway between the haulers, and putted across the garage area.
“Uh…” Junior cleared his throat. “I need to tell you something.”
Steve glanced into the #15’s garage area. He watched as Andy Santerre, clad in a NAPA blue fire suit, pulled on the matching helmet. Andy sauntered around the nose of the team’s Chevy in true Michael Waltrip form, and leaned against the driver’s side of the car. Leaning toward Slugger, he exchanged words with the crew chief of the NAPA Chevy.
Junior rounded the corner onto pit road, and the garage disappeared from sight.
“I didn’t write that letter,” Junior voiced.
Steve’s breath caught in his throat. Coughing, he turned, and looked into the sapphire eyes of the Budweiser driver. His chest tightened; a lump lingered just under his Adam’s apple.
Junior’s sights steadied upon Steve’s eyes. “The one about you being a wash-up, I swear I didn’t write it. My dad knew that you’re talented, and I know it too. I really wanted you to stay with DEI, but…” Shaking his head, Junior looked to the road. “You know, after it got brought up, and I got to thinking about it, I just felt like it was the best thing to do. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the one team’s not what it used to be. And I’ll tell you something you’d better swear not to tell anyway, ‘cause this ain’t even common knowledge within DEI. We’re considering dropping that team altogether. It’s been a drain on everyone involved, especially for you. Something’s... something’s just not working. It ain’t right to keep pretending that it is.
“I’m surprised you didn’t know of Childress showing interest in you,” Junior forced his lips into a grin. The pseudo-smile faded. Junior shifted in his jet leather cushion, and straightened his back. His right hand pressed into his rib cage as the left guided the wheel. “I figured everybody had heard. It sounds like a good opportunity over there, so maybe you can get the comeback you deserve.”
Junior glanced at Steve, their sights crossing. The older driver looked at his hands. Sighing, he released the pressure in his chest. He rubbed his nose and exhaled another heavy breath.
“I really do think it’s for the best, Steve,” Junior stated. “I wouldn’t have signed that dismissal letter otherwise. And, you know…” He took in air through his nose, and swallowed it. “It hurts you’d think I’d ask for you to leave for anything besides. We’re supposed to be friends, you know.” Junior scowled. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, stretching the skin across the back of his hand, and paling his knuckles.
Steve raised his sights from his lap, and looked to Junior. “I thought we were too,” he replied. Pursing his lips, he shook his head. “But what did you expect me to think, Junior? I- I don’t know. I think I was doubting myself more than I was doubting you, if that makes any sense.”
“You mean…” Junior furrowed his brow. “Are you really believing some of that crap in the media? Screw them! You can prove their asses wrong once you get into the right ride. Maybe it’ll be with Richard, but who knows. It’s another shot. No matter what, I know that sooner or later, things’ll work out for you.”
Curling the left side of his lips, Steve patted Junior’s shoulder. “It means a lot that you believe in me like that.” His smile faded. “I just thought I’d be with DEI forever, you know? I guess I was being unrealistic.”
“I really wish it could have worked out that way, man.” Junior grimaced. “I’m going to miss seeing you around the shop in the middle of the week. Hey, you’re welcome to join up with the Dale Jr. Fan Cruise at the end of the year. Shane’s already signed up. It’s going to be awesome! Lots of partying, and lots of hot chicks!”
Steve shook his head. Clasping Junior’s shoulder, he replied, “You know, that’s really not my scene…”
“You can stop by Club E anytime…”
Steve chuckled. “Your basement club is really not my kind of thing!” He looked to Junior as his laughter sputtered to a close. “Nah, I’ll prob’ly stop by every once in a while, just to hang out.”
Junior nodded. “Sounds good.” The Budweiser driver butted his head toward the nose of the golf cart. “Hey, looks like somebody’s looking for you.”
Facing front, Steve spotted Richard Childress talking with his crew chief, Tony Gibson. Childress glanced toward Junior’s golf cart, and made eye contact with Steve. The car owner smiled. He threw a word to Paul before jogging toward the pair.
Junior halted his cart in front of the #29 GM Goodwrench pit box. Slinging his left arm over the back of his seat, he turned to Steve. “I think this is your stop.”
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