No driver before or since has aroused unbridled passion in fans of NASCR racing the way Dale Earnhardt did.
If you were an Earnhardt fan, the Intimidator was your sole focus. Your emotions rose and fell with his changing fortunes on the racetrack.
If you weren't a fan, the depth of your outrage was boundless when he punted your favorite driver into the wall on the way to one of his 76 Sprint Cup victories.
There was no middle ground, and that's also the way it was with Earnhardt—a man who fashioned his legacy in racing with uncompromising determination and honesty.
"What Dale showed future generations of drivers is to be yourself, because he was always the same whether he was around friends, being interviewed or in the racecar," said FOX and Speed analyst Larry McReynolds, who enjoyed a stint as Earnhardt's crew chief at Richard Childress Racing in the late 1990s. "You never had to worry about whether Dale was being honest with you and coming clean.
"When he talked to the media, he wasn't worried about having his sunglasses on, his drink in hand. He took good care of his sponsors, but his interviews were genuine, whether in victory lane, coming out of the infield care center or just after he got flipped upside down with 11 to go in the Daytona 500. You knew Dale spoke from the heart."
Earnhardt's reputation as an aggressive, iron-willed and iron-headed driver is larger than life, but it shouldn't obscure the magnitude of his accomplishments in the sport.
His 76 wins rank seventh on the all-time list behind only Richard Petty (200), David Pearson (105), Darrell Waltrip (84), Bobby Allison (84), Cale Yarborough (83) and Jeff Gordon (82). What set Earnhardt apart, however, was his championship record.
Teamed with car owner and longtime friend Richard Childress, Earnhardt won his seventh Cup title in 1994—his fourth championship in five seasons—to tie Richard Petty for most all time. Only two other drivers, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, have won as many as four titles.
Our memories of Earnhardt, however, are less a statistical review and more of an impressionistic landscape. Indelible images have endured beyond the last-lap crash that took Earnhardt's life in the 2001 Daytona 500.
McReynolds remembers the 1997 Daytona 500, where he watched in awe from the pit box as Earnhardt barrel-rolled down the backstretch and returned to his car from an ambulance after noting that the wrecked No. 3 Chevrolet was still drivable.
"I don't know of any other driver who would have been sitting in the ambulance, looking out the window at his mangled racecar and then all of a sudden realizing, 'That son-of-a-gun will still roll. That son-of-a-gun will still go.'" McReynolds said. "He hopped out of the ambulance and told the poor track worker to get the hell out of his car, climbed in and drove it to pit road. I don't know of another driver who would have done that, nor one that would do that today."
The Earnhardt file
* Record 7 Cup championships
* 76 Cup wins
* Record 10 Cup wins at Talladega
* Won 27 NASCAR races at Daytona