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Ken Medlin

Ten years later, Earnhardt still missed

Posted February 20, 2011

It’s been ten years since the passing of Dale Earnhardt, and I’m convinced NASCAR has not fully recovered.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Earnhardt this week. Specifically, I recall a story Bob Holliday and I did with him only a few weeks before his death.

We were at the “Garage Mahal,” Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s palatial shop north of Charlotte. Earnhardt was hosting a number of media members for preseason stories before heading for Daytona.

What struck me was how different Dale Earnhardt was that day. He could be a gruff fellow when he wanted to be, but on that afternoon “The Intimidator” talked about being a father to Dale, Jr. and a friend to Michael Waltrip. Waltrip had moved over to DEI, and Earnhardt, Sr. described him as being like a younger brother.

He was cracking jokes about how Junior liked to sleep all day, and how Michael spent so much time training for marathons. Dale Sr. said he couldn’t outrun Michael, but he could climb a tree better.

It was a side most of us had never seen before, a stark contrast to the intense figure we saw at the track. Earnhardt let us see a little glimpse of Dale the man as opposed to Dale the Intimidator. I can’t ever think about his passing without thinking of that day.

Stock car racing was at its peak in 2001. Two decades of steady growth had taken the sport from what most outside of the South considered just a “Southern Thing” into a truly national enterprise.

But, in losing Earnhardt, NASCAR lost its last true icon. Imagine the NFL without the Cowboys, or Major League Baseball without the Yankees. Fans either love those teams or hate them, but they watch whenever these teams play.

That’s what Dale Earnhardt did for NASCAR.

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