Earnhardt at Daytona was like Ali in the ring, Jordan on the court, John Elway on the 20-yard-line with time running down. It was his place, the elemental proving ground that separated men from boys and contenders from pretenders. It was where he was the master, and the rest of his competition learned the bitter lessons of what it meant to win here on hallowed ground.
Healing How does one replace a legend? The simple answer is, one doesn't. One moves on and finds a new hero or begins building a new legend out of the stuff at hand. Even though it's been nearly a year now since Earnhardt's death at Daytona, the gaping wound at the heart of the place has yet to heal. Being there after the fact, without the crowds and the excitement and the brimming optimism over the coming of a new racing season, it almost seems as if the track itself is shaken, wobbly on its underpinnings, seeking comfort and solace in the coming of a fresh new start.
No one knew last year when the 500 began that the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, would not live to see the checkered flag. The accident that took his life sent a shock wave through the world of racing that has not been felt since 1994, when Ayrton Senna was killed in a Formula One race in Italy. Earnhardt was that kind of superstar. His death touched off perhaps the most riotous period in NASCAR racing since the driver boycott of 1969, where drivers refused to get in their cars at Talladega for fear of not coming back to pit lane in one piece.
Now, as the series gets ready to shake itself after a brief respite and return to the battlefield, there is a feeling of incompleteness. The shock of his passing has eased with time, as all things do, but the echoes of that momentous event will once again reverberate when the masses remember what happened here 12 short months ago.
Memories Everyone has an Earnhardt memory from Daytona. Some remember the 1990 500, when Earnhardt popped a tire with a mile to go and made Derrike Cope the most surprised first-time winner in the history of motorsports. Others remember the many other chances he had to win, only to have something or someone get in the way before the finish.
Tony Stewart has a Daytona memory of Dale from his rookie season. "That's a mirror-driving SOB," the Intimidator snarled after a skirmish in one of the Twin 125 qualifying races. Stewart had driven Earnhardt down to the grass off Turn 2, something that simply wasn't done when there was money on the line.
Countless drivers looked in their rear-view mirrors and saw that black car coming. Countless drivers learned the hard way at the bumper of the No. 3. Countless drivers will never have the opportunity to be measured by the only stick that matters at Daytona: Can you beat Dale Earnhardt?
Much of Earnhardt's reputation as the Intimidator rested on his ability to do things with a race car that few others would even try, let alone get away with. There's an old proverb that goes something like, "power perceived is power achieved." Earnhardt had that power, and he wielded it like a club. Nowhere did he have room to swing it like he did at Daytona.
No sure answer In short, the answer to the question asked in the opening lines of this story is simple, yet complex. What is Speedweeks 2002 going to be like without Dale Earnhardt? Different is one word that comes to mind. There will be no black No. 3 to root for or against, no Intimidator to hurrah or hoot down, so there's a void as allegiances are rearranged. The fact that 35 NASCAR Winston Cup races came and went between Earnhardt's death and the annual pilgrimage to Daytona has helped people deal with the fact that Dale Earnhardt is no longer here. There are others to root for and against in his absence.