Got Hook: The Intimidator’s Final Victory lap

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Last season saw the loss of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty from the Winston Cup racing family. Yet these two, both of whom were lost at New Hampshire, don’t compare with the loss that NASCAR and the world of auto racing faces with the passing of seven-time Winston Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt was killed, apparently instantly, when his car struck the outside retaining wall in turn four on the final lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500, a mere two months shy of his 50th birthday.

Dale Earnhardt, who garnered the nicknames “Iron Head” and “The Intimidator” for his aggressive driving style, captured 76 checkered flags during his 21-year career. He finally captured the illusive Daytona 500 championship in 1998, running his total victories at the fabled “high banks” of Daytona to 34 – more than the next two in line combined.

Bursting onto the scene in 1979, battling the likes of Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, and the “King,” Richard Petty, Earnhardt grabbed Rookie of the Year, then, a year later, took the top prize, his first Winston Cup Championship.

He’d go on to win six more, tying Petty with seven. His 349 consecutive starts out of 676 career starts show his dedication. He lived to race, and racing was his life.

Through it all, he helped revolutionize a sport that grew from a backwoods, short track tradition to a multi-million dollar enterprise that spans the nation.

A member of NASCAR’s founding family and current Chairman of the Board, Bill France, called Earnhardt the sport’s “greatest driver” at a press conference Sunday evening announcing the death of the champion.

He was right.

After leaving the track, making the 10-hour trek back up from Florida, my father and I received word via radio about the loss. We drove the remainder of the trip stunned. Stunned at the loss of one of NASCAR’s gladiators; stunned at the loss of a family man who, although in the evening of his illustrious career, was still in his prime; stunned that the sport had lost a man of such magnitude, a man who was having more fun behind the wheel now then ever before. And stunned that the famous black number three would ride no more with its familiar pilot.

Thoughts raced through my head faster than the cars down the 3,000-foot Superstretch at Daytona; I couldn’t begin to imagine the loss that Dale Jr. must be going through, having witnessed the fatal crash through his rear-view window before climbing out of his car and rushing to a scene littered with debris and safety workers. Not only did he lose his father, but his boss, his car owner, and most of all, his closest friend.

I’m reminded of Dale’s other children and family members – Kerry, Kelley King, and Taylor, and of course, and most obviously, his wife Teresa – whose losses aren’t so prominently shown in the media spot light.

It makes one appreciate the little things in life that much more: almost like a new outlook on life. Cherish every moment because even those you think will be around forever are just an inch away from being taken from you.

The death of Dale Earnhardt has sent shock waves throughout the racing community and the nation. Fans have flocked in droves to his shops in Mooresville. Memorabilia is selling now more than ever, all for the memory of the stock car racer who gave us so many memories running for “Sunday money.”

He became the ninth NASCAR cup driver killed in the last decade. Several years ago, a close personal friend to Dale, Neil Bonnett, was killed in about the same location as was “the Intimidator.” Earnhardt found the news rough and took a serious look at his career and whether to continue running.

He did.

This, too, will set several of the older drivers, mostly family men, to thinking about their careers and if they should continue.

But regardless, the race will go on. That’s what Earnhardt would want. The man who lived for racing still lives in it today. And know for sure that wherever “the Man in Black” is today, you know where he’ll be on Sundays – wherever the green flag flies and the checkered one waves.

Dale Earnhardt, Sr. – One final victory lap on his way to the ultimate of Victory Lanes.