“The Power of 3”
By Kellyanne Lynch
22 April 2003, 12:30 PM – 29 December 2003, 11:30 AM
9 – The Curse of the #8
Steve took his #1 Pennzoil Chevy to the outside of the #10 Valvoline Pontiac. Rounding Turn 4, he passed Johnny Benson. The DEI machine thundered off the corner and zoomed across the start/finish line.
“How she handling now?” the voice in Steve’s helmet came to life as the Pennzoil car entered the first turn.
Steve pressed his radio button. “Much better,” the racer reported to his crew chief. Laying into the throttle, he roared across the back stretch. “She’s still a little free off Turn 3 though.”
“It can’t be hurting too much. You just ran your fastest lap of the day. You’re up to 15th on the speeds chart.”
Nodding, Steve lowered his hand. He ducked inside Terry Labonte’s #5 Kellogg’s Chevy. The two ran side-by-side, but Steve let up before entering Turn 3. The Hendrick driver glided around him on the high side. Meanwhile, the driver of the #1 eased off the throttle. The rear wheels of the Pennzoil machine bucked, and the back end swung toward the wall. Clenching the wheel, Steve gritted his teeth. He caught a glimpse of his pallid knuckles before narrowing his sights on Turn 4. The yellow Monte Carlo hugged the track’s groove, and rode it like a rail around the bend. Steve leaned his foot into the fuel and ripped across the front straightaway.
Just ahead, the #15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet eased into Turn 1. Steve stared at the golden logo across the rear fender and sighed. Furrowing his brow, he watched Terry Labonte clear it. The #15 bobbled wildly coming off the first turn. Steve winced. His teammate’s car fish-tailed entering Turn 2, but straightened just after. The Pennzoil driver heaved a sigh. Approaching the first turn, he let off the throttle.
The driver jumped. Taking deep breaths, he reached for his radio button. “Yeah, Tony?” he uttered into the speaker.
“Teresa wants you to come in,” Tony Gibson informed him.
“Huh?” Steve knit his brow. “But practice has only been going on for… what, ten or so minutes?”
“Fifteen,” the crew chief corrected his driver. “And she wants you to come in anyway.”
Heaving a sigh, Steve shook his head. “Ten-four,” he responded, and lowered his hand. He hung close to the inside line around the third turn, and slowed onto pit road. After taking his first hard left, he crawled past crews and garages. His sights locked onto his cross-armed car owner, who stood next to the Pennzoil garage.
Steve pressed the brake. The nose of the #1 Chevrolet peaked into the garage area, and his front tires stopped on the line where asphalt met concrete. Glancing ahead, he saw Tony Gibson draw an index finger across his neck. When Steve did not cut the engine, his crew chief signaled again.
Long, manicured fingers worked at Steve’s window net. They unhooked each clasp, and unveiled Teresa. The car owner leaned into the window.
“Steve!” she hollered to him over the roar of the engine. “Shut ‘er off!”
Slapping at the switches on his dash, Steve cut the motor. He turned to Teresa with furrowed brows. The two locked sights. The driver stared into his car owner’s retinas until brown streaks blurred his vision.
Teresa pursed her lips. “Listen, we need you to practice the Budweiser car.”
Thumping his steering wheel with a gloved palm, Steve shook his head. “I can’t. I need to prepare my car to qualify.”
“Tony says she’s ready to go. The #8 isn’t.”
Steve pulled off his helmet. “She’s still not right in Turn 3,” he exclaimed. “Can’t you get somebody else? I mean, you said it yourself this morning. We need to really practice this car so we don’t waste a provisional. Can’t you get somebody else to drive that car?”
Teresa shook her head.
Shrugging, Steve asked, “Why not?”
The car owner narrowed her eyes. “I’ve asked the drivers I feel I can trust,” she explained, “the ones that I felt wouldn’t talk about Junior being unavailable. There’s not too many of those people, and none of them wanted to drive that car.”
Teresa closed her eyes. “Steve, I would really appreciate it if you could do this favour for me.” Opening her eyes, she looked into the driver’s. “Because NASCAR confiscated the… primary car, the team needs to start all over again with the set up for the back-up car. Can you please practice it, and maybe qualify it later as well? It would really help out everybody in DEI.”
Sighing, Steve nodded.
“Thank you.” Teresa put on a smile. Pointing to the Pennzoil rig, Teresa announced, “I dropped off one of Junior’s fire suits and helmets in your trailer. Once you’ve changed, head down to the other end of the paddocks. Tony Eury Sr. will be expecting you. If you can get the #8 prepared in twenty or so minutes, you can change back into your Pennzoil uniform and work on your car.”
She patted his shoulder. “I’ll see you later then, all right? Thanks again!” Turning on her heels, she paced away from the Pennzoil garage.
Steve pulled off his gloves and threw them to his right. Eying Tony Gibson, he unclasped his five-point restraints. The driver’s sights unlocked from the crew chief when he drew his HANS over his head, but they returned as he dropped the safety device over his gloves. He continued to watch the other while pulling himself out of the car.
Tony averted his attention to the Pennzoil crew, who were pushing their Monte Carlo into the garage. Steve stepped into his field of view.
Hands at his waist, the driver asked, “Why did you tell her we’re ready to go? We’re still loose in Turn 3.”
Shrugging, the crew chief grimaced. “It’s nothing to worry about. Loose makes you fast. Besides, they really need someone in the #8, and we both figured why not you.”
“Yeah, why not…” Steve hissed through his teeth. Slapping his hands against his sides, he stalked out of the #1 garage. He stomped across the paddock, away from the press and the garages, and toward the Pennzoil rig. Heat assaulted the driver’s face, intensifying in time with his heart beat. The tension between his ears mounted, and either side of his forehead throbbed. Steve rubbed his temples in deep, even circles, but to no avail. He pounded up the steps of his transporter.
The crimson Budweiser uniform lay neatly folded on a blue plastic chair. Steve grabbed it by the collar, and yanked it to its feet. Dangling the fire suit before his eyes, the Pennzoil driver studied the pristine Budweiser logo across the chest. When Steve’s sights drifted to the belt, the muscles in his face let go of everything but the furrowed brows. He stared at Junior’s signature. The thread had frayed at the end of the name, and strands of the delicate thread were unraveled in the middle. Pressing the pads of his fingers into the letters, he sighed.
Steve cleared his throat. Turning away, he grabbed a bottle of Dasani from the cooler beside him. After flicking the lid shut, he set the water and fire suit across the top. Steve shed his Pennzoil uniform, and slipped into the Budweiser one. Once he had zipped the red suit, he leaned beneath the chair and retrieved the matching helmet. He caught a glimpse of the few inches of lower calf that stuck out at the bottom of the pant legs, before he stood upright. Steve slung the helmet under his arm, grabbed his water, and marched for the door.
He halted a foot shy of the entranceway. His sights locked upon the picture tacked to the wall by the doorframe. It was a photo of the DEI drivers from the 2001 season; as Steve recalled, it had been shot shortly after his car owner and friend Dale Earnhardt’s death, and not long before the accident that could have ended his own life. He and Mikey were flanked on either side of Junior on pit wall, and the three were looking into the sky. Staring at the Dale Earnhardt hat perched on his photo self’s head, Steve remembered how he had hidden under the brim of the black #3 that day. He looked into the somber eyes that the photographer had revealed to the public, and shuddered.
Steve pressed his right hand into the picture, and raked his fingers down the torsos of his teammates. Their faces blurred the longer he looked into them.
“Dear God,” he whispered. The driver sniffled, and drew a breath. “Please be with my teammates. Please protect them, and if it be your will, please have somebody find them really soon.”
Steve’s shoulders trembled, allowing a tear to escape down his cheek. Its cold, wet form startled him, and he drew a hand to his face. Steve wiped the moisture from his eyes with his thumb and index finger. Filling his lungs with stale air, the driver drew his shoulders back. He turned from the picture, and pulled on the Budweiser helmet.
The shouts erupted as Steve descended the steps of the Pennzoil rig. He glanced at the horde of reporters thundering toward him before jogging through the paddocks. His legs throbbed as each pounded into the pavement. After he was halfway through the garage area, Steve glimpsed over his shoulder; no one was following. His pace slowed to a trot before sliding into his normal step. He looked to the Budweiser garage several feet away from him. His sights sunk to his feet.
Steve’s head shot up. Through the engines, power tools, and shouting in the paddocks… had he really heard what he thought he had?
“Harley?” he mumbled.
Steve swung to his right, and strode through the space between Terry Labonte and Kyle Petty’s transporters. Beyond the cabs of the eighteen wheelers, he noticed a Featherlite trailer, parked amidst a cluster of trees. As he approached it, Steve squinted into the open door. The outline of a four-legged creature was taking shape.
“Harley!” he cried. Steve ran for his dog. He clamoured up the steps of the stunted rig, fell to his knees, and wrapped his arms around his yellow Labrador’s neck. The dog barked erratically.
“Harley, where have you been, boy? I’ve been looking for you all over!” Steve’s grip tightened before letting go. He pulled off the Budweiser helmet, tossed it to the floor, and ran a hand over the dog’s head. “I’ve missed you so much!”
Harley lapped his owner’s face, and whimpered.
Steve’s fingers caught on a rope around his dog’s neck. “What…?” he furrowed his brow.
The door behind him shut.
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