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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Crossing racing lines is good

By Eddie Cheever Jr.
Special to ESPN.com

Eddie Cheever Jr.
Cheever
By now, everyone has seen the frightening video. Dale Earnhardt Jr., nearly knocked out, trying to regain his senses and unbuckle his safety harness as flames surround him. I have seen it several times, and every time it conjures up really bad memories of fiery crashes.

Then, still recovering from second-degree burns, he raced for 61 laps Sunday at New Hampshire. Racing always has been, and always will be, a sport in which personal courage plays an important role.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is attempting to become a truly great race-car driver, and -- believe it or not -- this incident is proof of that. He's not afraid to take a chance, and I commend him for that.

The truly great drivers I raced against were eclectic. Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and even the great Jackie Stewart were all accomplished at several forms of motor racing. That's what Earnhardt is attempting to do.

Junior took advantage of a weekend off from NASCAR to compete in an American LeMans Series sports-car race July 18 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. It's not the first time he's dabbled in sports-car racing. He was part of a team that nearly won the Rolex 24 last January at Daytona.

Here's the guy whose name and face are driving NASCAR, yet most people were stunned to discover he was racing elsewhere during his weekend off. He's at the top of the food chain in NASCAR. He has everything going for him. He easily could be justified in taking a few days off to lie by the pool and relax. Instead, he traveled across the country to take part in a race that has little to do with what he does now.

He did it for a simple reason: To become a better racer. You have to admire that.

There are publicists and reporters and fans who were upset that he took a risk like that during an off week in the middle of the season. They'll say he's crazy; I'll say he's brilliant. This risk wasn't taken for financial reward. It was taken because Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to become a more rounded all-around racer. That shows an ambition other than just being an accomplished driver of a certain series. He wants to be a great driver, period.

Yes, the videotape of the fire was frightening, but the great racers show no fear. He bounced back last weekend at New Hampshire, racing as much as he could stand, and he'll do the same this weekend when the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series competes at Pocono. He'll be sore for a while, but that will pass. Even though fire safety has progressed immensely in the past two decades, it's still a driver's worst nightmare. It's like being eaten by a shark while surfing. It's highly improbable, but if you're surfing in waters with sharks -- it's always a possibility.

I can only imagine the notice taken by lawyers after the crash. In many ways, that's what prevents racers from branching out -- too many preordained legal restrictions. Getting over the burns might be the easiest part of the aftermath. Let's hope this incident doesn't restrict his future plans to race elsewhere.

Dale Jr. is continuing his father's tradition. His dad also liked to broaden his horizons and race other types of cars and different forms of motorsports. That's part of what made him one of the greatest racers who ever lived. He tried different things.

I read somewhere that Dale Jr. has expressed an interest in competing in the Indianapolis 500. I, for one, would welcome it with open arms. It might just be the best thing that happened to American auto racing in years.

Imagine the attention it would draw, the interest from everywhere. Such a feat would be good for NASCAR, for Earnhardt and for the Indy 500. Best of all, it would be a treat for fans.

Lately it feels as if we've lost a bit of the adventure that racing used to have. Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Sebring and Indy 500; while he was racing in Formula One, he would fly back to the U.S. to compete in USAC races. A.J. Foyt is the only driver to win Indy, Daytona and LeMans.

Think about that. Chances are, nobody will ever do that again.

All of us have been guilty in recent years of staying in our own niche, not venturing beyond what we know and what we're good at. We need to branch out. We need to challenge ourselves, to put our best game and name on a track and series with which we are not familiar and see who the best driver is.

I would love to see Earnhardt in an IRL IndyCar Series car. I'd love to see Tony Kanaan or Scott Dixon try the Daytona 500. I'd love to see Helio Castroneves or Jimmie Johnson at LeMans. I enjoy watching Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon attempt the Indy/Charlotte double. The great ones cross over and venture out. Racing needs that pioneering spirit.

The epitome of a race-car driver is what Dale Jr. showed last weekend. An open mind, a fearless heart, and an adventuresome spirit. He's given me -- and plenty of others -- all the more reason to watch him race.

After all, isn't that what it's all about?

IRL IndyCar Series owner Eddie Cheever Jr. owns the Nos. 51 and 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara Chevrolets driven by Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter, respectively. He provides a diary to ESPN.com. Cheever's team Web site can be found at www.redbullcheeverracing.com.