February 25, 2001
I Lost My Favorite Punch Line
By Jon McClintock, SpeedFX
"No, no, Earnhardt's not dead! That's God. He just thinks He's Earnhardt."
I loved that stupid joke about stock car racing in Heaven. Maybe it's a comment about fans of Hisself that we enjoyed the imbedded slap at Earnhardt's arrogance as much as his detractors.
Now God is the victim of His own Silly Season, looking for a new ride in that never-ending competition between Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Fireball Roberts and others.
I'm a little lost, too - watching this week's practice times and race running-order crawl across the TV screen, always reminded there isn't a black 3 anymore.
There isn't a Dale Earnhardt anymore. An American Original is gone. The Ironhead I emulated....the man who taught us so much about The Will To Win.
The record book is closed. Suddenly that burning passion I felt for Himself eclipsing DW's 84 career wins isn't so important. The 8th Championship might have always bothered me, but then Bill France, Jr. settled the Debate of The Giants in a single clause: Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR's greatest driver.
I'm sorry, Richard. You didn't have the good fortune of going out in a whale of a way. You've given us a wonderful family and four lifetimes of memories. But Earnhardt left us at the very instant he finished imparting one of the many life lessons I took from his career.
I'm sorry, too, for all the fans who hurt so bad after Daytona. Oh I've cried more than my share; I lost a week of my life in a haze of disbelief and pain - a pain worse than I ever knew. (Sorry Dad, but you would have loved Earnhardt, too.) God bless those writers who struggled through tears to report without a pause for pain, who still haven't seen an end to SpeedWeeks.
The reporters, while exhausted, may have been lifted by an out-of-body feeling that numbs when you're covering something awful. It helped me during marathon reporting about Davey and Alan's passing, or the Ernie Irvan vigil. One gets into such a groove - always rewriting or looking for the latest angle - and there's not much time left to feel. That can be good.
The fans... No matter where you live, you've no doubt been surprised at the extent of continuing coverage of Dale's passing. Your neighbors no longer have to ask why you have a number on your pickup truck or car. The width, if not depth, of interest in NASCAR racing surprised even the most cynical of us. And it's the newer fans to the sport - especially those who decided to especially love or hate Dale Earnhardt - with whom I have special empathy.
I can't imagine what it was like to learn - for the first time over the long, last week - that you'd missed the opportunity to see an artist at work year after year; that there really was some awesome substance to this thing called Earnhardt.
You can't imagine the glee and anticipation some of us diehard lovers of Hizzelf brought to the TV set and grandstands on Sundays. We'd memorized Hisownself's moves. Half the joy of being an Earnhardt fan was anticipating when He'd split through a two-wide at Bristol rather than wait, passing under-braking at WGI or SPIR, and diving low in turn 1 at Daytona, Talladega and Pocono mornings promised an impossibly brilliant pass at the end. At Darlington and Rockingham, you just KNEW someone passing Earnhardt high in the turns would find Earnhardt passing him back three seconds later.
This guy was a magician. In later years, His supremacy was apparent in reading and righting an ailing car's woes. We fans were getting used to Dale starting from deep in the field and knew, as a matter of faith, that He would be a top-five contender shortly past the crossed flags.
I was asked in a TV interview "Why were Earnhardt fans so fiercely loyal?" The obvious answer would be something about admiration for his image as One Tough Customer, the first moniker from the Wrangler car days.
"All of us saw something in Earnhardt that we either identified with, or wished was a part of our own character," said I. "He was doing things on the track we wished we had the courage to do in our daily lives. He knew what He wanted, knew how to get there, and was absolutely miserable if he didn't pull it off. We were miserable, too."
I'm quoting myself because we're talking about the very foundation of why I loved the guy. It's very personal. His confidence was my confidence. It's something I incorporated into my personality - perhaps my character, over the years. Dale called it The Will To Win and it manifested itself in racing to win at nearly any cost. It's one of the reasons I've never felt much attracted to team sports. An individual can have values and goals and be motivated by them; a team will always have a weak link over which the team has no control.
Earnhardt had one helluva team, but they were an extension of one incredibly motivated man.
This is where others have told you about Him fleeing an ambulance upon noticing the black 3 was only mildly damaged and sitting on four good tires. It's the spirit that empowered his team to change a transmission in nine laps in that ohsoclose 1990 Championship year to salvage a few points.
It was a lesson in perseverance that we could only try to comprehend week after week. Earnhardt had to win the 1989 Atlanta finale and lead most laps to hope to beat Rusty Wallace for the Championship. He did his part; Rusty, some say sadly, did his. Ironhead's no-apologies style was outrageous and splendid, and in two of my several lives (as a political consultant and as a reporter) I watched, learned and emulated. Week after week I'd return to class on Sunday for a refresher course, and rarely left without enlightenment.
School dismissed on February 18, 2001, but unlike other institutions this was no "Casual Friday" or day when you watch the clock until the final bell.
Earnhardt saved one of his biggest lessons for last. Perhaps The Teacher understood it was time, that we were ready for a new Earnhardt, one who had aged and was planning his own elegant exit from the driver's seat into the more sedate life of team owner. The only thing he got wrong was the length of the exit.
We saw Hisself, ten laps to go in the Daytona 500, making that wonderful black 3 as wide as he always did. Old-timers saw the finish evolving. At first it was unbelievable, the notion that He wasn't looking for a line to push Him to the front; rather he was holding back the flood.
He was as reckless as ever, guarding the lead of his #1 and #15 cars like a mama bear, shutting down ambitious drivers behind him in a ruthless way. It was an incredible sight, the driving and moves as outrageous as his early years. Any mere mortal would have wrecked with seven to go.
But on He pushed, fast as He had to be, slow as He could. The man who more than once crashed Himself and others going for the win was presenting a final lesson. One Tough Customer was One Tough Team Player. None of us saw THAT coming.
Thank God Earnhardt was so good in the air that no one (else) was hurt. Thank God for taking all of the man who slammed the wall that day. A hobbled Earnhardt, aging and debilitated, just wouldn't do.
And thank you, God, for a moment in time amid all the noise and bustle, when we saw the love of a couple and their last kiss.
Thank you for Dale Earnhardt.
And good luck in that never-ending stock car race in Heaven. You'll need it.
Jon McClintock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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