DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. —
Has it really been 13 years since The Intimidator charged the high banks of Daytona?
I can still recall that fateful February afternoon in 2001 when I was a mere fourth grader who had no grasp on the magnitude of what the racing world lost.
Heck, has there ever been a more monumental tragedy in American athletics? The face of a sport, an icon, meets his end on the track that had been so fulfilling – yet so deflating – to him.
Earnhardt won every race run at Daytona, yet it took him 20 gut-wrenching years to finally triumph the elusive 500. The whiskered and beleagured Hall of Famer only captured it once.
The Daytona 500 – the Grandady of them all; NASCAR’s Super Bowl – consumed Earnhardt in an almost sickly manner.
He truly believed that an asterik would be inked by his etch in history had he never hoisted the Harley J. Earl trophy – even with his record seven titles to boast.
Daytona was bred to be Earnhardt’s fate.
Gone with the Hall of Famer was his venerable No. 3 racecar, whose black exterior aptly personified the man behind the wheel.
The famed No. 3 makes a much anticipated yet contentious return on Sunday whenrookie Austin Dillon takes the green flag in the Daytona 500.
Dillon, the well-chronicled grandson of Richard Childress, who was Earnhardt’s car owner and best friend, has played the dispute poignantly.
He’s humbled and meek to climb into what will assuredly be a pressure-filled race, season and career.
This initiate is just 23 years old – only a mere four months elder than myself – yet he’s carrying a veteran demeanor.
But no matter how admirable the attitude, how prolonged the tragedy, how anticipated the hype, legends must be revered – and remembered.
Dillon shouldn’t race the No. 3 car because no one should. It’s more than just a number – it’s an icon.
Fans still flock to the track boasting their GM Goodwrench garb. We all raise three fingers on the third lap of every race at Daytona. The seasoned goers still talk of “the glory days” and where The Indimidator’s seven titles rank versus the likes of Petty (and soon perhaps Johnson).
That’s because Earnhardt is almost as prevalent today as he was when he left.
NASCAR fans trump ability with personality any day of the week. There’s a reason Jimmie Johnson’s following isn’t as gaping as Brad Keselowski or Tony Stewart. Johnson is vanilla – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But in a sport that loves flair and panache, character rules the rest.
The Intimidator owned his character. And, whether 14 or 40 years later, we should never forget that.