DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He was The Intimidator, the Man in Black, and right to the end, Dale Earnhardt was every bit the brusk daredevil who drew millions to his sport.
Earnhardt, the driver people either loved or hated -- but had to watch either way -- died Sunday at the Daytona 500, a race he spiced up with his trademark bumps and bold challenges, unexpected moves and even an obscene gesture to a green rookie.
Some 200,000 fans witnessed Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet slam into a wall and careen into the infield during an accident on the last lap of the race. A few hours later came the terrible news. At age 49, possibly the best-known figure in motorsports history was gone.
''NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I personally have lost a great friend,'' NASCAR chairman Bill France said.
Earnhardt's statistics -- 76 victories, seven Winston Cup championships, that long-awaited victory at the Daytona 500 in 1998 -- don't come close to completely telling this story.
Rather, the image does.
One of the most-repeated quotes in NASCAR history dealt with what it felt like to try to hold off The Intimidator with one lap remaining: ''There is no worse sight than seeing Dale Earnhardt in your rear-view mirror,'' driver after vanquished driver would repeat.
Dressed in a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and sporting a bushy moustache that was once nearly singed off, Earnhardt was an intimidating figure who went after what he wanted. Not just on the speedway, but in the business world, in NASCAR's front office and in the rules meetings, where he sat front-and-center Sunday before his final race.
Because Earnhardt was more than mean, tough and sullen. He was a winner who still felt he could challenge the field each and every week. He raced like it Sunday, bumping Sterling Marlin off the lead early in the race, trading paint with rookie Ron Hornaday a few laps later and moving past another rookie, Kurt Busch, then flashing an obscene gesture as he glided by.
On one of the passes, he drove onto the edge of the grass.
''The grass is just green asphalt to Earnhardt,'' breathless radio announcer Eli Gold screamed, as he watched the move unfold.
There was a gentle side, too, that played up his Southern roots and values, just like the sport he dominated. An observer this week spoke of watching Earnhardt goad fellow competitors into taking a picture with a sick child at a publicity function, then show concern for a lady who almost fell off a podium. He also began to steady his shaky relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr..
After finally triumphing at the Daytona 500 in 1998, after 19 failures, pit crews, drivers and owners stood atop their cars and applauded wildly. No other driver could command such respect. He won five more races afterward, finished second last year in the Winston Cup point standings and said he felt primed for a run at a record eighth title this year.
The quest ended much too early.
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