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Dale Earnhardt Inc. was a fledgling race team for most of its existence. Earnhardt formed the team in 1984, mostly as a place for him to run lower-level Busch races here and there, before finally moving toward full seasons in 1995 with a variety of different drivers.

DEI didn’t seriously climb into NASCAR’s elite Cup division until 1998, and the next year was its first full foray into legitimate competition with Steve Park as the star driver. Earnhardt Jr. was added in a second car the next year, and 2001 was to be the breakthrough season with Waltrip behind the wheel of a third DEI car.

Earnhardt himself was driving for Childress, but as much as he wanted to win his own races, he equally wanted DEI drivers to do well.

That’s what made the Daytona 500 so difficult for DEI: Earnhardt died blocking traffic for his drivers. With Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. out front in the final laps, Earnhardt had switched from offense to defense as the third-place driver, circling the track trying to protect a DEI win.

It created feelings of survivor’s guilt for at least Waltrip.

“People would say Dale died blocking for you and Junior, or even worse, they’d say Dale died blocking for you. And that’s basically blaming me,” Waltrip said.

But Waltrip, who didn’t watch a replay of the race until this past year, knows it’s untrue. He and Earnhardt Jr. had such a cushion over the field as they headed to the checkered flag, Waltrip is convinced Earnhardt was only trying to preserve his own finish.

Dale knew it was over. He knew the only one that could beat us at that point was him,” Waltrip said, figuring Earnhardt was only thinking of a way to get past his two DEI drivers, or to hold on for third.

Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. did cross the finish line 1-2 in what should have been a crowning moment for DEI. It was instead the beginning of the end.

Park was badly injured in a wreck at Darlington later that year and never again raced a full season for DEI. The team was down to two full-time cars by 2004, for Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, who had combined to win 14 races in the first four years after Earnhardt’s death.

But the success petered out, and wins came harder and harder to come by. Then came an ill-fated crew swap between Earnhardt and Waltrip in 2005, and the tension between Earnhardt and his stepmother began to grow to an irreparable level.

Earnhardt decided in early 2007 that he’d leave DEI at the end of the year, an easy but emotional decision because of the ripple effects it would have on his father’s race team. Indeed, the organization no longer operated the way Earnhardt Sr. had intended by the end of 2008. A merger with Chip Ganassi Racing was the only way to keep the Earnhardt name on the track, but few view the current Earnhardt Ganassi Racing operation as having very much to do with anything Earnhardt.

The family joined briefly last May for Earnhardt’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, presenting a united front of The Intimidator’s four children and Teresa. It was a rare appearance together for Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother, and left everyone wondering what could have been.

There was really no need to wonder.

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