- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Seconds before his three-car racing team was poised to capture the first three places in the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl-equivalent of the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR), Dale Earnhardt Sr., racing at more than 170 miles per hour, crashed his trademark No. 3 black Chevy headfirst into the track's concrete retaining wall at the last turn of the last lap and died instantly Sunday, ending one of the greatest careers in NASCAR history.

As Frank Murray of The Washington Times poignantly observed, the 49-year-old Earnhardt was killed in "one of his desperation banging and slamming maneuvers, part of the win-at-all-costs philosophy that earned him the 'Intimidator' title he savored." Indeed, Earnhardt was such a polarizing and intimidating figure that as many fans booed him as cheered him. About one thing, however, there was virtually universal agreement among drivers throughout the NASCAR racing circuit: "There was no worse sight than seeing Dale Earnhardt in your rearview mirror."

Earnhardt's tragic, untimely death occurred during his sport's premier annual race on a track, the Daytona International Speedway, where Earnhardt had won a record 34 victories during his career. It was the track where he achieved perhaps the most treasured of his 76 career victories, victory in the 1998 Daytona 500, a race it took Earnhardt two decades to win. His instant death denied him the opportunity to celebrate the first-place finish of Michael Waltrip and the second-place finish of his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom race for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Arguably more than any other race car driver, Earnhardt was responsible for his sport's meteoric rise in national popularity during the 1990s. During this decade, Earnhardt, who in 1979 and 1980 became the only NASCAR driver ever to win rookie-of-the-year honors one year and the sport's Winston Cup championship trophy the next, captured six more Winston Cup championships, an unprecedented number in such a short period of time.

To make their sport even more exciting to its burgeoning TV audience, NASCAR officials recently enacted several controversial rule changes affecting racing's aerodynamics. Those changes permitted ever-closer racing and encouraged more lead changes. However, some drivers, excluding Earnhardt but including three-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Jarrett who was involved in a 19-car pileup Sunday, have strenuously objected to the new rules. "I'm sorry, but that's not racing," Jarrett complained afterwards, "You're totally at the mercy of someone else when you get three-wide. That's not racing." Whether "The Intimidator" would have eventually agreed with Jarrett is something NASCAR fans will never know.

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