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NASCAR 'FAMILY' SAYS GOODBYE TO EARNHARDT

Fellow drivers and team members took today away from the NASCAR circuit to remember Dale Earnhardt, killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

On a cold, rainy morning, thousands of Earnhardt's colleagues -- drivers, crew members, sponsors and friends -- gathered at cavernous Calvary Church for the nationally televised memorial service.

With racing to resume this weekend at Rockingham, the NASCAR community has had little time to grieve.

"The one thing that has to happen is a day to console everyone," said fellow Winston Cup driver Ward Burton. "For people that were close to him, that's needed."

Drivers Sterling Marlin, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, and Bobby and Donnie Allison; raceway executives Bruton Smith and Eddie Gossage; and members of the Earnhardt team, wearing black shirts with the shop logo on the pocket, filed into the three-level church that seats about 6,000.

They were joined by legendary driver Junior Johnson, who raced against Earnhardt's father, Ralph, and met the NASCAR star as a child.

"NASCAR will know that Earnhardt ain't in that race in Rockingham and it will hurt for a little while," Johnson said. "It'll get by, but it's going to hurt. It's a sad day for NASCAR and the sport."

Earnhardt, 49, was buried Wednesday at an undisclosed location after a family-only service at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Mooresville.

Driver Rusty Wallace said he would need today's memorial service to properly say goodbye to his friend and rival.

"None of us were ready to let Dale go and we will miss him terribly," Wallace said. "God only created one Dale Earnhardt and no one will ever replace him, neither in our sport or in our hearts."

Expressions of sympathy for Earnhardt's family extended far beyond the memorial service.

At Texas Motor Speedway, officials said all on-track activity would be halted during the service.

Charlotte-area funeral homes offered the public guest books to sign, as did funeral homes in eastern parts of the state. Funeral homes as far away as Ohio and New York did the same.

And a funeral home in Rocky Mount planned a memorial service tonight for Earnhardt.

"We're going to have a pastor speak. We've got people lined up to read poems and sing. The phone's been ringing off the hook," said Jackie Chartier of Bowling Funeral Home in Rocky Mount.

The funeral home printed 400 memorial service programs and expected a capacity crowd.

Bright Funeral Home in Wake Forest had a guest book for fans to sign that will be sent to the Earnhardt family. By Wednesday afternoon, more than 200 people had signed the book.

At Brown-Wynne's funeral chapel near downtown Raleigh, a guest book was attracting steady attention. General Manager Harold Hill said books were available at all three Raleigh-area chapels.

Outside the state, Earnhardt fans looked for ways to express themselves. In New York State, nearly 500 fans came to a Saratoga Springs funeral home to sign a registry. A funeral home in Olean planned a memorial service Saturday.

Fans want car retired

More than 58,000 Web site visitors signed a petition asking NASCAR President Mike Helton and team owner Richard Childress to retire Earnhardt's No. 3 car, unless one of Earnhardt's sons, Dale Jr. or Kerry Earnhardt, elects to drive it.

Signers of the petition, at www.petitiononline.com/DaleE3/petition.html, were from across the country, including Lawrence Croisdale of Lockport, who wrote "Please retire the '3.' "

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