The question you have to ask yourself when you come to Daytona International Speedway this year is: What's it going to be like without Dale Earnhardt?
Sure, there are 50 other drivers down there, all vying for the brass ring and trying to climb out of the shadows into the bright light of fame and fortune. Some have already made it, like Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, the brothers Labonte, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, the Burton brothers, Tony Stewart and others. Some are in the process of making it, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Still others are somewhere in between, depending on the season and the situation.
But since Feb. 18, 2001, there has been no Dale Earnhardt. Nowhere is that more evident than at Daytona, where he was the all-time leader in races and money won. Winston Cup, the Busch Series, IROC ... it didn't matter. Earnhardt won them all at Daytona. Heck, if he'd had the time and the inclination, he'd have won in the Goody's Dash, ARCA and Craftsman Truck Series, too. He even won a fishing tournament on Lake Lloyd one year, adding to his legacy as the true champion of champions at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Sadly, that legacy is all that's left of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona since his death, unless you believe his spirit still haunts Turn 4 ... or victory lane.
All-time winner Every year since 1980, Dale Earnhardt won something at Daytona. Shoot, there was a string of years in the '90s when he won everything but the Daytona 500. From 1990-99, he won 10 straight Gatorade 125-milers and finished with 12 victories overall. He won seven Busch Series events at DIS, including five straight from 1990-94, six Bud Shootouts, six IROC races, two Pepsi 400s and the 1998 Daytona 500 for a total of 34 victories. No other driver is even close, not even the legendary Richard Petty, who won just 11 times at Daytona. Of course, seven of those came in the Daytona 500.
Numbers aside, Dale Earnhardt will be missed for reasons other than his performance on the 2.5-mile oval carved out of the Florida seacoast wilderness by William Henry Getty France during the '50s. There was a quite-distinct feeling, once you arrived at the World Center of Speed, that the 500 was Earnhardt's to lose every year, and that to earn the brass ring and the big check you first had to deal with No. 3. It didn't matter if he was out to lunch in qualifying, or if his car wasn't running the way everyone else's was. The road to victory lane at Daytona went through the No. 3 garage, and you could take that to the bank.
Draftmaster Perhaps that feeling persisted because of Earnhardt's uncanny ability to know just where to be and what to do when a situation presented itself. There was talk that he could see the wind, and although that's hardly the case, he could see what the wind was doing to the cars around him and could, reliably, predict what it was going to do to them 200 yards up the track. That's where the mystique came from, that he could see the air.
Nowhere, with the exception of its sister track in Talladega, is seeing the air more important than at Daytona. Earnhardt could use every little breeze, each tiny eddy and ripple, to get past you, then beat you senseless with it once you hit traffic. The patented reverse slide job he perfected over countless laps-where he'd let you sail past underneath him and charge up the banking, then turn it down and drive right back past for the position was the source of constant frustration for competitors. Just like Muhammad Ali's jab or Michael Jordan's first step down the lane, no matter how many times he showed it to you it always worked. How many times did Earnhardt do that at Daytona? Hundreds? Thousands?