Above Picture: Dale Earnhardt being congratulated on pit row after winning the '98 Daytona 500 in his twentieth try.
Much like the black and white paint scheme on his car, Earnhardt was a polarizing figure. He fostered a love/hate relationship for his agressive driving style on the track with both race fans and competitors alike. However, there is one thing that every one of those fans and competitors had in common when it came to Earnhardt -- RESPECT -- not only for his natural ability to drive a racecar to and past its limits but also for his off-track contributions to his friends, fans, and the racing community as a whole.
Since 1979, Earnhardt's presence on the Winston Cup circuit provided fans with some of the most memorable moments in auto racing history. From claiming the NASCAR Grand National Championship following his "Rookie of the Year" season, to the now infamous "pass in the grass" at the 1987 The Winston, to capturing that elusive Daytona 500 win in his twentieth try, "The Intimidator" will always be remembered as one of the greatest to get behind the wheel of a racecar.
In each year that he competed in NASCAR's top circuit, his determination to win allowed him to do things with a racecar that no one thought possible. The remarkable thing is, he usually pulled off those seemingly impossible feats while making it look easy. Whether it meant driving through the grass or using his front bumber, Earnhardt did what it took to win. When another driver beat him, they knew they had beaten the best.
However, according to his competitors, Earnhardt's agressive racing style and determination to win was far from indicative of his personality off of the track. They described him as a caring and selfless person who would do anything for his friends. Dale Jarrett provided one of the many examples of Earnhardt's winning personality on ESPN earlier tonight.
After winning the 1999 Winston Cup Championship, Jarrett asked to borrow a plane from Eanrhardt so he could fly his guests to New York for the awards ceremony and told Earnhardt to send him the bill. Upon receiving and opening the bill, Jarrett said Earnhardt had written on the bill, "No charge. Congratulations on the championship. Courtesy of Dale and Teresa [Earnhardt's wife]." This side of Earnhardt clearly showed through during that final, fateful lap of the Daytona 500. He raced in third place and battled it out with the cars behind him, which allowed his good friend Michael Waltrip to win his first race in 462 tries and his son, Dale Earnhardt jr., to follow Waltrip across the finish line in second which made up a 1-2 finish for Dale Earnhardt owned cars. Unfortunately, instead of getting the chance to celebrate with Waltrip and his son, Earnhardt was involved in an accident in the fourth turn of the last lap that cost him his life.
While I can't say that I pulled for Earnhardt to win many races, I can say that I had the utmost respect for his racing abilities and accomplishments and for what he did outside of racing. The excitement that Earnhardt provided race fans with week in and week out will be missed, but he will long be remembered as the one of the finest and fiercest to ever strap into a racecar. He died doing what he loved, racing side-by-side with his friends, but it's terribly unfortunate that we won't have the opportunity to once again witness him turn the impossible into reality.