Dale Earnhardt knew life wasn't fair. He said so seven years ago when he watched his best friend, Neil Bonnett, die after crashing his Chevrolet Lumina into the wall entering Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway. The 47-year-old Bonnett was practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500, which was to have been his triumphant return from a serious wreck 3� years earlier at Darlington Raceway. "The first couple of laps on the racetrack and he's gone, after getting his own car, his own deal," Earnhardt said. "Is that fair?"
On Sunday, seconds before he would become only the fourth man to win the Daytona 500 as an owner as well as a driver, the 49-year-old Earnhardt died when he crashed his Chevrolet Monte Carlo into the wall entering Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway. The coincidence was eerie, and the consequences dire. In losing Earnhardt, NASCAR didn't just lose the best driver stock car racing had seen. It also lost its heart and soul, the one thing it had that no other sport could claim: a superstar the average blue-jean-wearing fan could identify with. "Dale was the Michael Jordan of our sport," said H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte. "To think he is not around anymore is incomprehensible. This is a terrible, terrible loss and, for me, it ranks right up there with the death of JFK."
Earnhardt's appeal was so broad because nearly everyone could find something to like about him. Front-runners cheered him on as he won seven Winston Cup championships, equaling the record set by Richard Petty. Underdogs appreciated how he had worked his way up from humble beginnings, tinkering with cars in a makeshift garage that his dad, Ralph, a short-track whiz, built in the barn behind the family's house on Sedan Avenue in Kannapolis, N.C. Sentimental types loved watching him goof around with his namesake, 26-year-old NASCAR driver Dale Jr., a Nirvana lover who apparently inherited little from his father save for a right foot of lead and nerves of steel. Then there were the tough guys, the ones who couldn't get enough of the way he refused to let anyone slow him down on the way to his destination. "I think everybody in the country is angry about having to drive in urban areas," said Wheeler in 1995. "They hate the traffic with a passion. Earnhardt drives through traffic too. And he won't put up with anything. He's going to get through. That's what they want to do—but they can't. So Earnhardt is playing out their fantasies."
As a teen, Earnhardt picked up the nickname Ironhead, a play on his father's nickname, Ironheart. A high school dropout, Dale was married at 17 and began racing for grocery money. He described himself as "wild and crazy, young and dumb," but he was forced to get his act together when Ralph died of a heart attack while working on a carburetor in his garage in 1973. Dale, then 22, essentially took over his dad's car and made enough of a name for himself on the short tracks of North Carolina that he earned a NASCAR ride and in 1979 was the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.
As the years passed, Earnhardt matured, but that's not to say he mellowed on the track. In 1987 he won 11 races—three after bumping the leader out of the way. Sometime around 1989 he swapped the moniker Ironhead for the Intimidator, and he did his best to live up to the name. To his credit, however, Earnhardt realized that turnabout is fair play. At Pocono Raceway last June, Earnhardt and Jeremy Mayfield were running one-two, spitting distance from the finish line. Mayfield bumped Earnhardt, just enough to sneak past him for the win. While other drivers pulled up alongside Mayfield and gave him the thumbs-up, Earnhardt pulled alongside the 12 car and raised a different digit. Later, after he had cooled off, Earnhardt said simply, "I got beat."
"One of the biggest thrills of my career was the deal last year at Pocono," says Mayfield, now in his eighth year on the NASCAR circuit. "You know he never said anything to me about that? He came over and gave me that grin of his, and that was like his seal of approval."
Mayfield wasn't the only driver to be starstruck by the Intimidator. "A lot of people use [nicknames] superficially, but it just fits him," says Mike Wallace, who made his first Winston Cup start in '91. "He was the Man." And it wasn't just the younger generation who dug Earnhardt. "The proudest moment of my life was when [my son] Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt [to win] the 1993 Daytona 500," says Ned Jarrett, a former driver and longtime broadcaster. "He beat the master."
The Mayfield incident came during a season in which Earnhardt enjoyed a renaissance. When athletes—especially ones in their mid-40s—start to decline, they aren't supposed to bounce back. But after finishing eighth in the Winston Cup standings in '98 and seventh in '99, Earnhardt made a serious run in 2000 at his eighth championship, finishing second, 265 points behind champion Bobby Labonte. Two factors contributed heavily to his resurgence. He had back surgery in December '99 to correct the lingering effects of a nasty crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier that year, and Dale Jr. spent the season driving a Winston Cup car owned by his old man.
Though Earnhardt insisted that having his son around didn't change the way he felt or drove, he was clearly enjoying himself more. After Junior won The Winston in Concord, N.C., last May, passing Dale Jarrett with a lap to go to become the first rookie to take the checkered flag in the 16-year history of the all-star exhibition, the elder Earnhardt's usual Mona Lisa smirk was replaced by a beaming smile that crept out from under his bushy mustache as he hugged his boy with uncharacteristic force. It was one of his most memorable Victory Lane appearances, topped perhaps only by the one in 1998 at Daytona after Earnhardt notched his lone victory in the 500.
For much of Earnhardt's career, the 2�-mile Daytona tri-oval defined him. He won 34 races at the track, but until '98 he had never won the big one. He had come close, losing on the last lap three times between 1993 and '96. However, until he won in '98—and produced a stuffed gibbon in Victory Lane, declaring, "I'm here, and I've got that goddam monkey off my back!"—he was known for two things: being the best superspeedway racer of all time and being unable to win the biggest superspeedway race.