Dale Earnhardt, the most famous driver in NASCAR, died in Daytona doing what he did best – pushing his race car to its limits

I walked to the driver’s window of the # 3 Chevrolet and Dale Earnhardt waved, winked, and flashed that unforgettable, mischievous smile

Earnhardt was firmly strapped into his legendary black car and wore the open-faced helmet he preferred for comfort He was relaxed and easy to get along with last Sunday when he was on the grid for his 23rd birthday Daytona 500 was waiting

I never thought for a moment that it would be my last look at his familiar face

Earnhardt, the driver who won more races than anyone at Daytona, who has racked up seven Winston Cup titles and 76 wins in a 25-year career – the driver, Teresa’s husband and Kerry’s father, Kelly, Dale was Jr and Taylor Nicole – never made it to the finish line He left the track in an ambulance, fatally injured

In the final lap, the man who understood the draft better than anyone pulled behind Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr to block the impending attack by Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace Earnhardt knew Waltrip and Junior would open the door to fight for victory

This wasn’t the Dale Earnhardt who often said his son was just another competitor on a racetrack.This wasn’t the Dale Earnhardt who said he would probably get Junior’s No. 8 out of the way if the black No. 3 had a chance to win. This was the ultimate act of selflessness from a driver who started the season firmly convinced that he would win his eighth Winston Cup championship

Marlin, who had an excellent chance of breaking a 149 race winning streak if he got past Earnhardt, did his best to take a step Earnhardt did his best to hold him off When the cars roared at Turn 4, bumped it and No. 3 got out of control and hit the concrete retaining wall with a brutal impact

Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s team owner since 1984 and previously his friend, received no response to his anxious radio call on his driver’s headset Childress sent teammate Mike Skinner to the site of the wreck Still nothing He radioed Teresa to crew chief Kevin Hamlin, to someone to get an answer, but nothing came

In the winning streak, Michael Waltrip, the newest member of the team that Earnhardt owns, celebrated his first Winston Cup win in 463 starts The emotion between the Waltrip brothers – Darrell called the race from the TV booth – was the culmination of the Fox- Shipment

Nobody knew NASCAR’s lead driver was sitting lifeless as paramedics struggled to cut him out of his wrecked car that had come to rest on the lawn in the three-oval section of the track, and Earnhardt made no response to efforts to revive him, and so did he was pronounced dead at 5:14 p.m. at the nearby Halifax Medical Center, where he was taken by ambulance

“NASCAR lost its greatest driver of all time and I lost a dear friend,” said Bill France Jr, Chairman of NASCAR

As a young man, Earnhardt’s potential for France was evident. Recently, France spoke heartily about the contribution Earnhardt had made to the sport founded by the French family and even more about the respect he had for Earnhardt as a man

And besides his father Ralph, who unexpectedly died in 1973 before he could see his son in the Winston Cup, it was France that Earnhardt admired most

“He’s helped me grow,” Earnhardt said last month. “He’s helped me understand the sport better. Bill has always been a great leader and philosopher. The interesting thing about Bill is that he doesn’t forget anything about people He remembers a person’s name, who they are, what they do, and what they said in 1940 He was there He saw it He has to contend with these situations and knows what to expect and how to deal with it ”

While it was Earnhardt who laid the foundation for an impressive motorsport dynasty, it was “Billy’s” leadership that made the scruffy factory worker from Kannapolis, NC.and made him a legend Earnhardt’s wife, Teresa, who knew him best, said part of the success was selling the painting “Earnhardt” – The Intimidator, Feared On and Off the Track However, when Earnhardt respected someone and gained his trust, you couldn’t ask for a truer friend

Earnhardt was also a NASCAR loyalist, despite the security concerns, despite the uneven distribution of television money, and despite all the inequalities between manufacturers, Earnhardt refused to tarnish the family name or the sport that made it

In an interview last month, Benny Parsons spoke about how much Earnhardt had developed and matured since joining the Winston Cup as a rookie in 1979

“When he first came on stage I said he couldn’t manage to represent the big company,” said Parsons. “And boy, was I wrong about that? Then I said he couldn’t be consistent enough to win a championship – he’s too tough, he runs too hard to win championships And once again I was wrong. He was really, really amazing like him In terms of his ability to speak and stand up in front of people and be very open, he was great on the racetrack as well

“I think Earnhardt has more fans than any other driver I wouldn’t dare say he has more than any other driver combined, but if you interviewed every fan who came through the gates for the Daytona 500 , and you get an honest answer, I think Earnhardt would sum it up more than anyone. Every time you have someone as popular – like Richard Petty or David Pearson – they have a dramatic impact on the sport ”

Childress and Earnhardt were just two simple racers from North Carolina They were friends off the track The two hunted, fished and enjoyed life Childress often said their relationship was based on “the tremendous respect” they had for one another

“It doesn’t matter what it is, he doesn’t like to lose,” Childress said. “He’s just got a competitive character. When you get to the last 50 laps of a race, he knows how to dig deeper than any other driver I know to make a difference ”

Earnhardt had a work ethic that was second to none. He didn’t give handouts to his first three children and decided to share the same lesson with them. Kerry and Junior had to work at Earnhardt’s Chevrolet dealerships and on their own cars before they were allowed to race – just like Dad Earnhardt’s eldest daughter, Kelly, also races, but she’s currently a successful businesswoman at Action Performance, a racing collectibles business. When Earnhardt spoke of Kelly’s newborn daughter, an unmatched softness came over his face

Finally, with 12-year-old Taylor Nicole, Earnhardt had the chance to be the dad he didn’t have time to be for his other kids.It wasn’t uncommon for Earnhardt to be in town to see How he picked up Taylor from school or took her deer hunt at the family’s 300 acre farm in Mooresville, N

When I spoke to Earnhardt last month, he could barely suppress his excitement about finding an old 1988 Corvette for Taylor – the year it was born – he talked about the low miles in the car and how he was a year Needed To Find Just The Right One She had a dream that “Daddy” had bought her a car

The next day when she got home from school, she and her father were spinning around in their new Corvette on the farm, Earnhardt pointed to the car and bragged about Taylor becoming a great little driver already and like her parked the car perfectly on the showroom floor Then he said how proud he was of all his children and how far they had come. He described the struggles during the construction of Dale Earnhardt Inc, but he said it was worth securing the future of his children

“On the grand scheme of things, having all of these is unique, but I believe that Dale Earnhardt Jr Someday it will be possible to do all of this and hopefully Kelly, Kerry and Taylor will be involved too, “Earnhardt said.” They are all going to run this and run out of here and then do great. Hopefully after I get off driving I am going to do it retired, a great car owner for a few years, then I can hand this over to the kids and let them run and keep running ”

Ned Jarrett, winner of 50 races in a 13-year career in the Winston Cup, says Earnhardt was a champion. “In my opinion, and I’ve said this many times, he was the best racer ever driven “says Jarrett” He had a tremendous amount of God-given talent and he worked hard to make the most of it Everyone respected the man for what he could do with a racing car “

Jarrett says NASCAR doesn’t have to delay or cancel the next race at Rockingham out of respect for Earnhardt. “The world doesn’t stop because we’re losing someone,” he says, “He wouldn’t want it to be. He would have wanted it to be Son races out there ”

Jarrett has lost many lives in his dedication to the sport. Earnhardt’s death is the fourth in the NASCAR series in the past 13 months. “It’s just so hard to accept that they are no longer there,” says Jarrett. “When losing someone who has accomplished so much to get the sport where it is today is difficult”The man was dedicated to what he was doing. Every time he buckled into the racing car, he walked as hard as he could”

Fans in the Daytona 500 infield were in disbelief “It’s awful,” said Kimberly Bennett, an Earnhardt fan who shared two Earnhardt Jr’Spit “It hurts your heart just thinking about it”

“It’s casting a shadow over this whole speedway,” said Neil Bennett, 41, “It’s a huge loss to motorsport”

Kimberly drives Legends series cars in her hometown of Stockton, Ga., and had recently painted her No. 21 car to look exactly like Earnhardt’s No. 3 except for the black, white and red paint job, “I liked the way the way he spoke when he got out of the car, “says Kimberly, 15” He always had something nice to say and he was really competitive “

According to Jarrett, NASCAR doesn’t need to reevaluate its safety policies. “NASCAR does a good job of making these racing cars as safe as possible,” he says. “I think there is only so much you can do. Certainly we’ve seen racing cars tore apart worse were as his, watching (the drivers) leave. What security measures could have prevented his death? I have no idea ”

Earnhardt had reached a stage in his life where he was content he couldn’t fight middle age, so he accepted it and approached it with a grace that comes from a trust few receive

“Life changes as you go through it,” he said. “Of course you have to focus on different things at different times in your career. I’m 49 years old and I’m pretty comfortable in life. Things don’t really rattle me when someone shows up and says you are being examined by the tax collector, or losing a key member of the team, or your sponsor is unhappy

“What I do, instead of becoming insecure, is to analyze the situation, correct it, or straighten the program and move on. Many things rattle me earlier in life, but as you get older you get more experience. They try getting things going and having a good time ”

Just before his death, Dale Earnhardt had a good time, mixing it up in Daytona, doing what he did best, and loving every second of it

Dale Earnhardt, Ryan Newman

World News – USA – TSN Archives: Remembering Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in Daytona 20 years later

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