There is now a final, slam-dunk answer to all criticism that motor racing's main feeder system for drivers is nepotism -- that to get a top-flight ride and become a star, all you have to be is "son of . . . " fill in the blank.

Kerry Earnhardt is prima facie proof otherwise.

He was the firstborn of the man who arguably has had more influence -- first in life and now in death -- on NASCAR than any other driver. His kid brother is on top of the world, so high up there that he sometimes suffers vertigo.

But this week, Kerry Earnhardt joined the ranks of a lot of Americans who formed the core of his father's following in the first place.

He is unemployed.

Winless in NASCAR for two seasons in its Class AAA league -- the Busch Series -- the eldest Earnhardt heir was fired by his mediocre team on Tuesday. Co-owners Armando Fitz and Terry Bradshaw (yeah, that one) spoke some nice platitudes and replaced him with -- how is this for a marquee name with family connections? -- a guy named Tim Fedewa.

If name and resemblance alone bought rides, Kerry would have $35 million a year in sponsorship, a 10-year contract with a $10 million base salary and 50 percent of team winnings, a Lear jet or two and a mansion on Lake Norman, N.C., which is a sort of the Beverly Hills for NASCAR drivers.

He looks almost exactly like his father did at this age, 33. His mannerisms are identical, from the furtive glance in the eyes to the twitchy turns of the head.

His father at this age was still very much in touch with the hard times of which Kerry was begotten.

We were riding along some country highway in North Carolina, sometime in the 1980s, when Dale Earnhardt first told me about the son almost nobody knew about.

We all knew the blond-haired kid Dale Jr., who was maybe 12 at the time, and his sister Kelley, about 15. We thought their mother, Brenda, was Earnhardt's first wife. Turned out she was his second. (The widow who now runs Dale Earnhardt Inc., Teresa, was the third.)

The year Kerry Earnhardt was born, 1969, his father was a nowhere-bound (so it seemed) dirt-tracker, racing hand-to-mouth on 90-day loans at $500 a pop, for tire bills. The first wife could not take it.

After the divorce, "I couldn't even afford to make the child-support payments," Dale Earnhardt said, driving along that road that day. "So I let her new husband adopt him."

So Kerry grew up as far removed from the explosion of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. business empire as a first male heir can be. What's more, his formative years were spent without the real reason why the sons and nephews of drivers become drivers -- the environment for development of eye-hand coordination.

Twin brothers Mario and Aldo Andretti raised their sons, Michael and John respectively, on motorized toys. Go-karts, jet skis, dirt bikes, you name it -- rather than batting balls and shooting hoops, Andretti central nervous and muscular systems were fine-tuned from toddlerhood to accelerate, shift, clutch, brake. . . .

With only minor variations, the same was true of Allisons, Pettys, Unsers, et al., and is currently true of Labontes, Mearses, Jarretts, Martins . . . and even more Andrettis. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and the other from-cradle-up drivers had their reflexes thusly honed, though by families that were not so famous.

Kerry Earnhardt grew up a working-class North Carolina kid. Period. And you know how expensive motorized toys are.

He already had a family by the time his father, at last in a position of wealth, fame and power, reached out to find the son he hardly knew -- but the son who in so many ways was so nearly identical to the father.

If Dale Earnhardt's core public, the downtrodden, the beleaguered, the very masses of what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, "The majority of men live lives of quiet desperation. . . . "

If those masses only knew, then there would have been 100,000 or so jackets and T-shirts proclaiming "Great Clips Racing -- Kerry Earnhardt" in the grandstands at every Saturday's Busch race, and Fitz and Bradshaw would have had no trouble pleasing their sponsors, and they'd have been in Winston Cup full-time by now.

If they only knew how like the father the elder son is. . . . "I'm one of them," Dale Earnhardt used to say of the working, desperate majority of men and women and children. "I'm not better than them."

If they only knew, the grandstands would have rocked and thundered with ovations for Kerry Earnhardt.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a genuinely good-hearted human being, chronically humbled at how far he's come because of who he is and how he grew up, and often uncomfortable at all that swirls around him . . . perhaps part of that discomfort is seeing how his older half-brother has had to struggle.

If Dale Jr. had control of DEI, Kerry might well be his teammate now. But big business -- which NASCAR racing certainly is -- doesn't work that way.

Kerry won four races at the truly blue-collar level of stock-car racing, the ARCA series. One win came in a finish-line duel and wreck with Blaise Alexander, the last stock-car driver to die of the epidemic injury that killed Dale Earnhardt, basilar skull fracture.

So even the meager wins have come hard and tragic for Kerry.

His eye-hand coordination and his fine motor skills got no head start. And so he is not a particularly good driver.

He did not grow up within the platinum realm his father built. He is, to this day, one of them, not better than the people who adore the Earnhardts.

Like them, he is out of work, worse off than his daddy was at the same age, with no benefits.

Not even from his name.

Trial by Fire

NASCAR thought it had solved the fire problem 39 years ago, with the innovation of fuel cells after the death of Fireball Roberts in 1964. But in the past two months, four big fires in Winston Cup crashes have looked like recurring nightmares from the '50s and '60s.

Thanks to modern fire-retardant clothing and helmets, Dale Jarrett, Ken Schrader, Ryan Newman and Bobby Labonte have all escaped with only minor injuries, but the alarm has duly gone off at NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, N.C.

The trouble is two-fold, sources say: the synthetic fuel lines that are filled to capacity when cars crash soon after pit stops, and the location of the fuel cells.

As often happens in racing, a good thing has led to a bad thing. The highly crushable rear ends of the cars, which absorb crash impact without serious injury to drivers who "back in" to the walls, also apparently leave the fuel cells vulnerable to damage.

The immediate goal is to find ways to reposition or better protect the fuel cells, according to a highly placed NASCAR source.

Be assured that NASCAR is working on this one with all deliberate speed. Drivers fear fire above all else, and the current outbreak, if not resolved quickly, would bring unprecedented outcry from the competitors.

Breaking the Law

Kevin Harvick said his team had a secret for winning the first two races at Chicagoland Speedway -- and NASCAR may have found it.

During a pre-race inspection before last Sunday's third annual Tropicana 400, technical inspectors found what was described as "an unapproved travel limiting device." As usual, no details were given.

But it sounds like something to do with shock absorbers and/or springs, which Harvick had acknowledged was the area where team testing at the Joliet track had resulted in "a pretty unique package."

Harvick was docked 25 championship points, which did not affect his seventh-place standing. Crew chief Todd Berrier was fined $25,000, and team owner Richard Childress was assessed 25 owner points.

Harvick ran out of gas Sunday with less than three laps left, while running second to winner Ryan Newman.

After two winless seasons on NASCAR's Busch Series circuit, the Great Clips Racing Team fired Kerry Earnhardt.