His Last Finish Line

20 February 2001

From the time I can first recall having an interest in Sportscar racing I remember being a bit envious of the NASCAR brand. Wanting desperately to be a part of the Sportscar crowd, I was thankful 'we' had the USRRC and then the Can-Am. Every month I loved to get the latest issue of Auto Racing magazine just to see the black and white photos of the Lolas, McLarens and especially, the Chaparrals, and to read about my heros. And there always managed to be some NASCAR stuff in the magazine, so I had to be exposed to some of what went on with 'them', but it was the sportscar stories I most wanted to read. For me, the other stuff just filled out the pages.

Of course, the other stuff was what probably helped sell the magazine to the masses. And that is what NASCAR has always done well. Sell its product to the masses. Even though not all of 'us' were in that market audience, we did have an acute awareness of the brand. And we came to know the people in the sport called NASCAR.

I remember the names of people like Fireball Roberts and Cale Yarborough. Buddy Baker, and Donnie Allison, Tiny Lund and Ned Jarrett and later on, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, and Mark Martin. And 'everyone' in the WORLD knew who Richard Petty was.

And it wasn't too long before everyone knew another name. Dale Earnhardt.

In the years since he came on the racing scene, the NASCAR brand grew even bigger and bolder and more popular than any other form of auto racing. No one had it figured out better than the France family. The franchise became the focal point for anything almost anyone knew about 'car racing'. Ricky Rudd in a "Tide" car people got, but James Weaver in a Gulf McLaren? What's that?

Yes, I'm still envious of NASCAR's success. But now I feel the pain the fans of America's own racing are feeling. 'We' lost Mark Donohue and Peter Revson and Bruce McLaren. 'They' lost Dale Earnhardt.

I lost him too.

Yesterday, my wife Shirley and I came home from a short overnight stress-releasing stay at a hotel in Connecticut. Things on the job just seemed to be piling up for both of us so we just packed a bag and headed out. We had a nice time, did some shopping and had a good dinner that night and a full breakfast the next morning.

When we got home, the Daytona 500 was still running on TV and, while watching a NASCAR race was never all that important to me, something told me today's race was going to be very special. We watched the last 50 laps or so.

Michael Waltrip was actually in front of the pack as the race was drawing to a close. That suggested he might actually get his first win after 400+ tries. Now, you had to pull for anybody who was now so close to what had always been so far away. And then I realized Michael's brother Darrell was in the broadcast booth. And I realized that Darrell too was pulling for his kid brother.

Anyone with a heart could feel the emotion in Darrell's voice as he gave his little brother some unheard advice. "Stay low in turn 2 Mikey. Don't let 'em fool ya!" He wanted this win for his brother at least as much as his brother wanted it for himself.

But his big brother wasn't the only one helping Michael that day. He had a black shadow working for him too. Running in third place behind him was the Intimidator. Dale Earnhardt was running interference for his teammates ahead of him. Interference, not interfering. #3 was #3 on the track, but running #1 for Michael.

And the black shadow did what he wanted to do. He kept the 'other fellas' away from Michael. He used all the smarts and guts and speed he had in reserve to get his 'other' driver home ahead. And he did it almost all the way to the end.

And then the end came.

The TV reporter collared Michael when he got out of his car in victory lane. Hearing Michael's comments about winning his first race only because Dale Earnhardt (Sr. and Jr.) helped him, and seeing a teary eyed big brother Darrell watching from the TV booth, gave me Goosebumps. I knew the Waltrip family had to be as proud as is possible for anyone alive. Heck, I wasn't even a NASCAR fan and I felt their happiness.

What a great story. What a great feeling. What a way to end a race!

Feeling drained from the exciting end to an incredible journey, we sat there for a few more minutes and then turned off the set and went about doing other things.

About an hour or so later, I went on line and checked out the Gwen Davin interview that Malcolm Cracknell had just posted. I was pleased to see it and I read it again to see if my editor had changed anything. He hadn't, but he did add something I will never forget.

He said that "as this interview is being posted, we have just learned that Dale Earnhardt Sr. has died at Daytona."

He what?

I called out to my wife and told her what I had just read. We both reached for the remote and turned the TV back on trying to find out how this could be so. We watched the taped events of the accident and the emergency crews working to free the man from the machine. We saw the pictures of Dale being taken out of the back of the ambulance with a paramedic pumping his chest in an attempt to resuscitate him. There was Dale's wife and son arriving at the emergency entrance asking the ambulance attendant which way to go.

And we sat on our couch and we started to cry.

I never met Dale Earnhardt. I only saw him one time, and that was just two weeks ago at the Rolex 24. At Daytona. I couldn't get near him on the grid, because he had more people clamoring around him than Paul Newman did. And Paul was standing just about a hundred feet away.

The man was more popular than a movie star. The man was a giant. And now, the man is gone.

And the Intimidator's last act on the track was to help someone else keep their lead over him.

At the Pearly Gates, St. Peter has to think about that and I'm sure he will. In fact, I'm sure he will let Dale Earnhardt pass because, he knows that the entrance to heaven is really just one more finish line that Dale Earnhardt will go across first.

His last finish line.

All our prayers to his family.

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