Though he excelled at restrictor-plate racing, he loathed both the device mandated by NASCAR to reduce speeds on some of its tracks and the type of racing it produced. He offered this bit of advice last summer to drivers who complained that they were going too fast: "If you're not a race driver, stay the hell home. Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Get the hell out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat that candy ass."
The 76th and final win of Earnhardt's career came in a restrictor-plate race in October, the Winston 500 in Talladega, Ala. The race drew raves from onlookers for its 49 lead changes, which included Earnhardt's moving from 18th to first in the last five laps. Some drivers, on the other hand, were less effusive in their praise. Said Jeff Gordon, "It was a little too exciting at times for me."
The excitement came thanks to a rules change NASCAR made in the wake of three numbingly dull restrictor-plate races earlier in the 2000 season, including a Daytona 500 that featured only nine lead changes. The sanctioning body decided to slow the cars down aerodynamically and switched to a less restrictive plate, which in turn gave drivers the power to pass more easily. Not only did the Talladega race feature a breathtaking game of hot potato with the lead, but it also was completed without the big wreck that drivers have come to expect at superspeedways.
Pleased with the Talladega experiment, NASCAR stuck with the new rules for this year's Daytona 500, which left some drivers skittish. "The cars are so stable now that you feel like you are Superman, that you can do anything you want with them," said Stacey Compton two days before the race. "Some awfully talented drivers are out here, and we have a tendency to put the cars in some places they don't belong and [still expect to] come out of it. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't."
Defending Daytona 500 champ Dale Jarrett was also cautious. "Things wouldn't have worked in Talladega if everyone hadn't used his head," he said before last week's race. On Sunday, with 27 laps remaining, he found out firsthand what happens when someone doesn't. Robby Gordon got a little overanxious and tapped Ward Burton from behind, spinning Burton into Tony Stewart, who was sent tumbling through the air Louganis-style. Once in the air, Stewart's car spun once and flipped twice, tearing teammate Labonte's hood off in the process. Nineteen cars—including Jarrett's—were involved in the big wreck, and the race was red-flagged for 16 minutes. "You can't do it when you've got idiots out there," said Burton. "Somebody didn't use his head and hit me."
Earnhardt, who was just ahead of the crash, stayed out of trouble, and with five laps left he was riding in third place, behind two cars he owned—Michael Waltrip's and Junior's. It had the makings of an interesting showdown. Only one man had gotten his first win faster than Junior, who won at Texas last year in his 12th Winston Cup start, and no driver had gone longer without his first career victory than the 37-year-old Waltrip, who came in 0 for 462. Earnhardt seemed content to lay back and run interference for his two employees. "I was monitoring him on the radio," said rival owner Jack Roush after the race. "He was telling the guys in front of him where to go on the track. You can draw your own conclusions what he was doing. Both of those cars up there were his."
As Waltrip outlegged Junior to the finish line, the back of Earnhardt's car wiggled slightly as Rusty Wallace closed in from behind. Earnhardt's car veered left toward the lower portion of the track, took an abrupt right, got hit on the passenger side by Ken Schrader and then barreled into the wall nearly head-on. Earnhardt had walked away from many worse-looking crashes, but according to Dr. Steve Bohannon, the EMS director at the speedway, Earnhardt died of a severe injury at the base of his skull. Bohannon also said that he didn't think a HANS (head and neck support) device, which has been increasing in popularity since the deaths of drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin last year in separate incidents at New Hampshire International Speedway, would have saved Earnhardt. He added that a full-face helmet, instead of the old-school open-face model that Earnhardt wore, would not have helped.
"It's hard to say how long you should drive," Earnhardt said last summer. "Some people hang on too long just trying to get one last victory. For me, racing is in my blood. It's who I am. Right now I think I can win championships and go after it as hard as I ever have. It will be tough getting out of the car for the last time, but I'll know when to do it."
Earnhardt didn't have the chance to decide when he'd had enough. He didn't even get the chance to walk away, let alone to do so on his own terms. On Sunday night, as word of Earnhardt's passing made its way through the stock car racing world, one sentiment was shared by the fans who won't have the chance to see him chase that elusive eighth title, the rivals who won't have a chance to swap paint with him again and the drivers who won't have a chance to share one more Victory Lane hug with their boss: This definitely was not fair.