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By Sandra McKee
Sun Staff
Originally published February 19, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Unknowing race fans were leaving Daytona International Speedway last evening. As they made their way to the exits, they may have been speculating, but they probably couldn't seriously consider the idea that Dale Earnhardt, the most intimidating driver in Winston Cup racing, might be dead.

Not even Rusty Wallace, one of Earnhardt's longtime friends, who knew what a hit like Earnhardt's car had taken could mean, couldn't bring himself to believe it.

"I hope he's all right," Wallace said. "I know they had to cut him out of the car. But he's a pretty tough guy. It'd be pretty hard to hurt him."

But yesterday afternoon, hitting the concrete wall at Daytona killed him.

Most people will remember him as The Intimidator forever.

But I won't. It is the glimpses of the other Earnhardt that I have known for 22 years that I'll remember.

I'll remember how a couple of years after his daughter Taylor was born, he had sat in a rocking chair, his daughter on his knee, reading "The Night Before Christmas."

How he nearly crawled through the window of Dale Jr.'s car to hug him at Texas Motor Speedway, when his son won his first race, and how he never missed a chance to say how much Teresa, his wife, meant to him and what a partner she had been in building their business, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

And I'll remember the day after his best friend, driver Neil Bonnett, died in 1994. It happened in just about the same spot in Daytona's Turn 4, in just about the same way.

I'll remember how Earnhardt sat in his motorhome and tears streamed down his face as he talked of how much Bonnett loved to race. And how the two of them loved to go fishing.

There was a day at Dover Downs International Speedway in 1981, when we were sitting on the back of his truck and he said: "OK, I've done a lot in two years, Rookie of the Year and champion, but listen, if I ever get too big for my britches, I want you to come and tell me."

About 13 years later, I did tell him, and he got a little angry. But then he grinned. "My daddy always told me, never get beyond your raising," he said.

But it was difficult for him not to. His ego grew with the years. And yet, when the National Press Club invited him to speak in Washington a year or so ago, he was like a little boy.

"I was awake all night," he said. "I worried about what I'd talk about. I worried because what could I possibly tell those people about myself that they'd find interesting?"

I could have told him. Because another of my memories is of sitting with him for a one-on-one interview late on the night he won his first championship in Atlanta in 1980. That night, he told me about growing up poor. About growing up the son of a racer and learning the art of drafting other race cars from his dad, Ralph, who would draw diagrams on the dirt floor of the old garage behind their house in Kannapolis, N.C.

As it turned out, that's exactly what he talked about at the National Press Club. He simply told them about himself. He told them the stories that those who cover motor sports know by heart.

Earnhardt became more elusive with the press as his fame grew. But there were still some who could get time with him. He never seemed to forget those who had been around from the beginning.

Over the years, he also forged close ties to others within his sport. NASCAR president Mike Helton was one, and he was choking back tears last night. "This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make," said Helton, his voice hoarse. "But after the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt. ... Our prayers and wishes and effort right now this moment is with Teresa and the Earnhardt family, Richard Childress and his family and Dale Earnhardt Inc."

Earnhardt is survived by his wife, Teresa, and his four children, Kerry, Kelly, Dale, Jr. and Taylor Nicole; his mother, Martha; two brothers and two sisters.

Richard Childress had been his car owner for 17 1/2 of Earnhardt's 22 full seasons in Winston Cup. And it was Childress' Chevrolets that he drove to all but the first of his seven titles.

It was in 1994 that Earnhardt joined Richard Petty as the sport's only seven-time champions, and he had been trying ever since to win No. 8.

He finished second in the points race last year, and was energized and ready to make another strong run this season.

"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever," said Bill France Jr., the sanctioning body's chairman of the board. "And I, personally, have lost a great friend."

In Charlotte, N.C., Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, said he had talked to Earnhardt yesterday morning.

"This is a terrible, terrible loss," said Wheeler. "It ranks up there with the death of JFK. Dale was the Michael Jordan of our sport.

"We always thought of Dale as being invincible, so when he didn't climb out of that car ... I knew it was bad."

Wheeler, who had known Earnhardt since he was a child, recalled that he went through "pretty tough" times when his dad died. "He was young and I was so proud of the way he turned out and represented our sport."

Earnhardt was the thorn in everyone's side on the track. And had earned the right to be.

He would stick the nose of his car up under the rear bumper of the driver in front of him and give him a push. He would also give an opponent a shove right out of the way if the occasion arose - just ask Terry Labonte, who was pushed out of the lead at Bristol last year in a race Earnhardt went on to win.

Competitors claimed he could see air, though Earnhardt never admitted it. "I can feel it," he'd say, and add, "and I do know what to do with it."

He was so much better than most other drivers that even the most confident among them acknowledged it.

"When somebody is that good and he's got you beat so bad, there's no longer a competition," said Wallace, the 1989 series champ.

Earnhardt won seven championships; only Petty has as many.

He is the only driver in the history of the sport to back up his Rookie of the Year title (1979), with a Winston Cup championship the very next year.

He won 76 races.

He won on superspeedways, short tracks and road courses. And when he took his first shot at endurance racing at the 24 Hours of Daytona earlier this month, his team finished fourth.

Yes, it is the way he raced that most people will remember. But not me. I'll remember the way he lived. The way he liked to tease the people he liked and the way that often-concealed smile would peek out from under his mustache and those ever-present reflective sunglasses when his dry wit was in fine form.

And I'll also remember how intent he was on doing his job well.

Sitting in his trailer here just last year, I asked him why he was so intent on pursuing an eighth title.

"Because it's a privilege to be in position to do it," he said. "You know there are so many who dream of doing this and never get the chance, so many minor-leaguers who never make it to the majors. You owe it to all of them to do the very best you can every day you're here."

That's what Dale Earnhardt did. He did it every day. Yesterday, he was having a wonderful time at Daytona doing exactly that. That's what those who love him should remember. 
Copyright 2001, The Baltimore Sun