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Fond farewell

Remembering 'The Intimidator' at full throttle

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Posted: Monday February 19, 2001 2:03 AM

  Dale Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt had 34 career wins at Daytona, more than any two other drivers combined. AP

By John Giannone, CNNSI.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- His nickname was positively perfect. Just as Earvin Johnson was Magic, Walter Payton was Sweetness and Muhammad Ali the Greatest, Dale Earnhardt was auto racing's Intimidator.

It wasn't just a name -- it was a 200-mile-an-hour way of life. Just this week it was written that Earnhardt would run over his mother, wife -- even his racing son -- to pass Richard Petty and become the all-time Winston Cup Point Series champion.

It was the way he lived. It was the way he died -- at full throttle, on the final turn of the final lap of a race won by a driver in a car Earnhardt owned. With his namesake son right behind.

But while his chisled face and omnipresent dark glasses fed that image, away from the steering wheel Earnhardt was different -- genteel, kindhearted, peacock-proud of his prodigy, the brash youngster who gladly accepted the specter of his father's footsteps.

No driver in NASCAR -- now or perhaps ever -- commanded Earnhardt's level of respect or passionate fanaticism. From the moment he descended on the Winston Cup circuit in 1979, Earnhardt was enormously popular. That will never change ... not even now. The abject grief and makeshift shrines that dotted Daytona are a testament to that.

No one in this sport's history had an easier time speeding into Victory Lane at the birthplace of speed. Thousands of races have been run at Daytona in 42 years. Hundreds of brave men have braced themselves around its fabled high turns and inviting straightaways.

Several have tasted success at Daytona. Dale Earnhardt feasted on it -- 34 times, more than the next two most successful racers combined.

That is the Earnhardt legacy. That is why his death Sunday will leave such a lasting and profound impression. It will raise questions -- about the sport's safety, about fate ... questions with no real answers.

Just this week, Earnhardt said the best is yet to come, that there is another championship to win. Sadly, there are no more races for Earnhardt. For his millions of fans -- already dressed in his familiar black color scheme -- the mourning begins.


 
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