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John Gilbert: Earnhardt's sudden, ironic death unparalleled in U.S. sports

In the good ol' days of stock car racing, all those other good ol' boys with their Southern drawls, precise touches and heavy feet like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough -- not to be confused with Lee Roy Yarborough --...

In the good ol' days of stock car racing, all those other good ol' boys with their Southern drawls, precise touches and heavy feet like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough -- not to be confused with Lee Roy Yarborough -- raced Pontiacs, Chevies, Fords, Dodges and Plymouths, all with real stock engines, running the configuration you could buy in the showrooms of the nation.
The close competition of racing always has fascinated me, because different cars might have a mechanical edge, and different drivers might be good enough to offset another team's power advantage. That doesn't happen in NASCAR anymore, where everybody runs formulated V8 engines in phony car replicas that aren't even sold with the V8s or rear-wheel drive of the racing model. If one manufacturer gets an edge, NASCAR would change the rules for the next week to make sure everyone ran in a close cluster.
Through it all, though, there was Dale Earnhardt. He drove by his own code, asking no quarter and giving none, either. He'd bang into someone to knock them into a little fishtail, then he'd dart around to pass, and win. I met Dale Earnhardt years ago. Dale was not the harsh, uncompromising figure he showed on the tracks, but he was a superstar, and he did things his way.
He won 76 Winston Cup races in his career, and he won seven NASCAR championships in something like nine years through the late '80s and early '90s. He alone bridged the gap from the good-ol' days of Petty and Yarborough, through the recent Jeff Gordon years, and now, at age 49, he seemed rejuvenated enough to regain the top.
So, I turned on Sunday's Fox telecast of the Daytona 500 for two reasons. First, Dodge was making its big comeback with several teams and some fast cars. Second, Earnhardt not only was capable of winning the race, but he had a three-car team, with luckless Michael Waltrip, who hadn't won in 462 Winston Cup tries, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., plus his own sinister, black No. 3 Monte Carlo. It would be great if one of the Dodges won, I thought, but it also would be great if Dale Earnhardt beat 'em all.
In one of the amazing coincidences in racing history, after a record 49 passes, the Daytona 500 came down to the last 16 laps with the Earnhardt team 1-2-3: Michael Waltrip leading, Dale Earnhardt Jr. right on his tailpipes, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. right behind him. Behind those three were the silver Dodge of Sterling Marlin, very likely the fastest car on the track, the yellow Pontiac Grand Prix of Kenny Schrader and 15 other hard-charging cars.
I thought Dale Sr. would win the race, but only by outsprinting Marlin to the finish line. But then an amazing thing happened. Dale Earnhardt, "the Intimidator," chose not to go for the victory. As a team owner, and a dad, Dale Sr. clearly chose to sacrifice himself to try to block out the rest of the field from getting up close enough for a slingshot pass of the leaders at the finish. Half a dozen times, Earnhardt came down low, veering in front of Marlin to prevent his obvious move.
The laps dwindled, with five left, then four, then three, then two. When they came around for the white flag on the final lap, Marlin had to go for it, and went down low on the backstraight. At the same time, Schrader went up high. For a moment, they were three abreast, flanking Earnhardt, with Rusty Wallace plunging up the middle, right behind Earnhardt.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. tried his luck at intimidation one more time, as the field hurtled into Turn 4 at about 185 miles per hour. He inched ahead of Marlin, but not quite a full car-length, then he squeezed down low, with the intention, obviously, of forcing Marlin to let off. But Marlin had no place to go, and when Earnhardt veered down, his left rear touched Marlin's right front. Marlin let up, instantly, but the rear end of Dale Sr.'s car fishtailed, hard, and he corrected, but then it veered up the high-banked track, narrowly missing Wallace, and slamming into the outside wall just as Schrader, with no place else to go, struck him amidship.
It didn't look like a horrible crash, nothing like the 20-car shunt that sent Tony Stewart flying over the top of several cars 25 laps earlier. And all Stewart had was a concussion and a broken collarbone for his bouncing, flipping tangle. As Waltrip covered the last couple hundred yards to win his first race, with Dale Jr. second, Schrader, whose car had slid with Earnhardt's crunched racer down into the infield, got out and ran around to see if Dale Sr. was all right.
He wasn't. Schrader signaled for medical help, which was on the scene within seconds. They announced Earnhardt was being taken to a nearby hospital in serious condition. But he was worse than that, apparently because his neck had snapped severely upon his car's impact with the wall.
Dale Earnhardt never regained consciousness, and died after all emergency efforts to revive him failed.
As for other sports, it would be as if Michael Jordan was felled as his game-winning reverse layup was hanging suspended above the rim, or if Babe Ruth couldn't make it around the bases after pointing for his home run. This was far more devastating than the retirement of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or Joe Montana, because there is no comeback, no future. This was a tragic, horrible death of the best driver in NASCAR history, arguably at his prime.
The strangest irony of all is to realize that if it had been any two drivers other than his new employee Michael Waltrip and his son, Earnhardt would not have been hanging back, racing through his mirrors and straining to block, but instead would have been charging his hardest, inventing a way to pass them and win the race. Undoubtedly, both Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with millions of racing fans everywhere, would give anything to see that ending instead.

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