“The Power of 3”
By Kellyanne Lynch
22 April 2003, 12:30 PM – 29 December 2003, 11:30 AM

2 – Three Blind Mice

Clad in his bright blue fire suit, Michael Waltrip clamoured down the steps of the NAPA transporter. He halted at the bottom. Standing cross-armed in his path, a middle-aged man in a NAPA polo shirt frowned.

“What?” Michael shrugged, raising one side of his lips to the man. “I can’t be late, am I, Slugger?”

Michael’s crew chief, Richard ‘Slugger’ Labbe, wagged his head. Releasing a gut-full of breath, he replied, “No, Michael, it’s not that. I… have something to tell you.”

The NAPA driver lowered himself onto the steps. Grimacing, he said, “I have a feeling I should be sitting.”

Slugger sat beside his driver. Propping his elbows on his knees, the crew chief drew his hands over his mouth and chin. Drivers, crew men, and reporters wandered past the pair. Slugger watched their feet, before looking into the garage area across from the transporter. The #15 team stooped around the NAPA Chevy. Chris Crumley, the front tire changer, made eye contact with his chief. Slugger turned to the driver.

“Listen, Mike,” he sighed. “Dale Jr. was assaulted today.”

Michael’s mouth dropped open. “Heavens, no!” he exclaimed, his eyes locking on Slugger’s. “Is he all right?”

“He got a pretty nasty gash to his forehead that needed some stitches. He’s okay, though. Actually, he’s on his way over here for practice…”

“You know, maybe he shouldn’t be driving right now.” Michael pursed his lips.

Raising his eyebrows, Slugger shrugged. “That’s really up to him and his team to decide.”

Michael wagged his head. “We’re his team too, you know,” he stated. “We’ll have one of the Busch Series drivers practice his car this afternoon. I know they’re always willing to step in.”

“Well, we’ll suggest it to Eury and Junior.”

Michael’s jaw hung on its hinge. Staring across the garage area, his sights slipped in and out of focus on the rear fender of his #15 car. “What happened?” he asked. “Wasn’t he just at a driver appearance?”

“Yeah, he was signing autographs for Drakkar Noir at the mall,” Slugger reported. “One of the last fans in line started yelling at him, and he threw a die-cast car at his head. It was a hard enough pitch that it knocked him out.”

“Oh my!” Clenching his teeth, Michael hissed a breath through them. He closed his lips over them, and heaved a sigh through his nose. Scanning the garage area, his vision slipped over his teammate’s bright yellow #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet, and came to rest on Junior’s bright red #8 Budweiser Monte Carlo. An individual with the fire suit and hair to match swaggered around the rear of the car, pulling on crimson gloves.

“Hold on a second,” Michael murmured, staring at the man in red. “I’ll be right back…”

Michael jumped to his feet, and strode into the #8 garage. He tapped the back of the fire-suited individual, who turned around. Michael glanced at the bandage on the other’s forehead, before looking the individual in the eye. “How ‘bout letting somebody else practice your car?”

The young Earnhardt smirked. “Nobody knows what’s good for my car but me,” he retorted.

Clamping his hands on Junior’s shoulders, Michael narrowed his eyes at his teammate. “Junior, I really think it would be a good idea. You just went through something. You’ll have plenty of time to fine-tune the car tomorrow.”

Junior snorted.

“Now come on!” Michael pursed his lips. “As your teammate and your friend, please listen to me…”

A heavy-set, older gentleman strode up to the pair. Sizing up the situation with a glance back and forth, crew chief Tony Eury Sr. glared at his driver. “Earnhardt, what the hell are you doing? I thought I told you Sauter’s in the car today!”

Junior shrugged Michael’s hands off his shoulders. Crossing his arms, he huffed, “What the hell for? I can drive!”

The crew chief drew his hands to his hips. “You heard what I said! Now take your ass to your motor coach, and get some rest!”

Growling, Junior pulled off his gloves and pelted them onto the hood of his Bud car. He glared at his teammate before stomping toward pit road. A hand reached for the gloves on the car. A young, dark haired boy pulled them on, over the cuffs of his dark blue fire suit. Johnny Sauter flung his legs through the car window, and pulled the rest of his body inside the vehicle.

“Aw, hell!” Eury grumbled. Grabbing hold of the window frame, he helped his crew push the #8 car onto pit road. Michael glanced at the red Chevy, then toward his waiting #15. Heaving a sigh, the DEI driver jogged to his car. Michael jumped inside.

Slugger and the NAPA crew pushed their car onto pit road, lining it up behind the Budweiser Chevy. Within his Monte Carlo, Michael drew his sights to his left. Junior and Eury were yelling at one another, but thanks to his helmet, Michael couldn’t hear a word of the argument. He stared at the snarled, red faces, and the waving arms. After a few minutes, Junior raised his palms flat to his uncle. The young Earnhardt sauntered several paces, then pulled himself onto the pit wall. There he sat. Michael followed Junior’s sights to Bobby Labonte’s #18 Interstate Battery Chevrolet, which sat at the exit of pit road. Engines fired up, and the #18 rolled onto the track. Michael tailed the #8 car, and ripped into the first practice lap of the weekend.

Loudon, New Hampshire, is just like a larger Martinsville. That’s what Michael remembered Richard Petty saying to him once, back when he used to live with the King. Michael tapped the brake as he entered Turn 1. He had to lean on them a bit longer when the Budweiser car wiggled in front of him. Both DEI cars picked up speed coming off the second corner, and thundered onto the backstretch.

Michael pressed his radio button. “The car’s running great,” he called over the rumble of engine and wind.

“How’s the 8 looking?” Slugger’s voice transmitted into Michael’s earpiece.

“Loose,” Michael squinted at the Budweiser car. The pair slowed for Turn 3. “Sauter bobbled coming into Turn 1, and he’s looking worse in 3.”

The #8 car slid up the track, and scraped the Turn 4 wall. Michael backed off the throttle coming out of the corner, following his teammate’s car onto the front straightaway. The three cars of Kyle Petty, Terry Labonte, and Mike Skinner passed the pair on the inside. The Bud car swerved, clipping the back fender of Skinner’s #4 Kodak Pontiac. The #4 car slid back; Michael jerked the wheel to the right and cleared it. Taking in a lungful of air, he scanned the track before him. Sights focused on the #8 car, Michael’s breath caught in his throat. The Budweiser car slammed head-on into Turn 1.

Michael parked his #15 NAPA Chevy against the outside retaining wall. He pulled off his restraints, jumped out of his car, and ran for the Budweiser car, his helmet still on his head. In his periphery, he saw yellow lights blink for the caution; however, his attention was focused straight ahead. The #1 Pennzoil Chevy grinded to a halt to Michael’s right, and Steve Park, his DEI teammate, shed his HANS and helmet and leapt from his ride. Steve reached the car first, and hunched down beside it.

“Johnny!” Steve cried out. He looked over his shoulder as Michael crouched beside him. “He’s out cold,” Steve announced. Jaw slack, Michael stared at Johnny’s closed eyes and ashen face through the opening in the helmet. He watched as Steve drew a hand to the driver’s neck, and pressed his fore and middle fingers into the boy’s carotid artery. “And his pulse is weak.”

“Oh, shit!” exclaimed a voice behind Steve and Michael. They turned, and watched as Junior jogged to his wrecked car. “Johnny!”

An ambulance passed him on the track, and halted beside the Budweiser car. Every one of the vehicle’s doors flew open; paramedics flowed from them. Steve and Michael stepped back, and emergency workers flooded the window.

Junior scrambled toward his teammates. “Oh, man!” he panted. Slinging an arm over Michael’s shoulder, he asked, “How’s Johnny?”

The NAPA driver opened his mouth, and squeaked.

“Not good,” Steve replied. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he shook his head. “Not good at all.”

Shutting his jaw, Michael swallowed hard. Junior gripped his teammate’s shoulder, taking in deep breaths.

“How is he?” Michael’s radio came to life within his helmet.

Michael raised a hand to his head. Sinking his fingers into the radio button, he drawled, “Not good.”

“Eury wants Junior to ride back in the ambulance,” Slugger’s voice crackled. “You and Steve need to bring your cars in so they can clear the track. You can meet up with Johnny in the infield care centre.”

Nodding, Michael lowered his arm from the helmet. “Steve,” his lips formed the name as he stared at the wreck. “We need to take our cars in.” He blinked before refocusing his sights upon the man leaning on him. “Junior, your uncle wants you to ride in the ambulance.”

Clenching his eyes shut, Junior nodded. He pushed off Michael’s shoulder, and paced toward the paramedics. The NAPA driver watched his teammate climb into the ambulance, before returning his sights to the #8 car. Safety workers surrounded the Chevy; Johnny still lay inside.

Michael rapped his fingers against Steve’s bicep. “We need to go.”

Slowly, Steve nodded. Running a hand over his goatee, he plodded toward his #1 Pennzoil Chevy. Michael watched his teammate before heading to the NAPA car. He was about to pull himself inside when a slip of paper on the driver’s seat caught his eye. Cocking his head to the side, Michael furrowed his brow. He reached into the car, and retrieved it. The white sheet was folded into fourths. With trembling hands, he opened it, and read the dark block print:


Please let me know what you think about chapter two! Email me