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.