Sunday, February 19, 2006

This Crash has been a day that I wish had never had happened.

For those who do not know anything about one of my favorite spotrs NASCAR, I was a huge fan of "The Man in Black" Dale Earnhardt. My #3 hat and Shirts are worn in his honor. It still looks like a very simple crash but sad to say. This was his final ride.

Five years since ...By Jerry Bonkowski.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Coping with the death of someone who meant a great deal to you is never easy, but we eventually get past our grieving and tears and go on with our lives.
But if you're like me, the anniversary of that death is an event you don't look forward to. We can go along for 364 days every year with a forward, positive approach to life, but it's that 365th day that once again turns us somber and reflective.

That one 24-hour period each year virtually transports us to that fateful day when someone special was taken from us. Granted, it's simply the passage of time, but it's a sad passage nonetheless. Particularly hard are milestone years, be it one year later, five, 10, 20 or more. That's why this Saturday is a notable and sad milestone in the NASCAR and sports world.
For it will be five years since a simple man from Kannapolis, N.C., was tragically killed at Daytona.

Of course, this was not just any simple man. This was Dale Earnhardt.

And what happened on Feb. 18, 2001, was not just any simple crash. No, this was a 190-mph wreck on the final lap of the race that meant so much to him and yet also baffled him for nearly 20 years before he finally got the upper hand.

The biggest race in NASCAR. The Daytona 500.

The year before, three other drivers were killed in racing-related crashes: Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper. While each of their tragic wrecks made headlines, life went on.
Earnhardt's death, on the other hand, shook the sport – and beyond – to its core, making front-page news from Charlotte to China. The death of the man they called The Intimidator was the NASCAR equivalent to Elvis Presley's death in 1977 or the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy in 1963.

His fatal crash was so monumental, particularly when NASCAR president Mike Helton announced to the world, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt," that it prompted the same type of question that has historically followed Presley and Kennedy's deaths: "Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when they died?"

His fatal wreck was so shocking, much like Kennedy's assassination more than 42 years ago, that it will always seem like it was just yesterday. Earnhardt's was the biggest and greatest name in NASCAR history. He was a man who meant so much to the sport and his fans, carving out a legacy much like Johnny Cash did in country music: they were both men in black, loved my millions yet cloaked in mystery for the intensely private lives they tried to lead outside of the spotlight.

They were the best in their respective businesses, icons that inspired and launched the careers of so many young and aspiring musicians and race car drivers. They were role models who set a standard for others to follow. When it came to racing, Earnhardt didn't just raise the bar, he put it out of reach. It's doubtful we'll ever see another driver even equal, let alone break, the seemingly insurmountable mark that Earnhardt and Richard Petty set in their careers: winning seven Cup championships.

Jeff Gordon is the closest challenger to that mark today, but he says if he's fortunate enough to win two more titles in his Cup career, he'll quit at six and leave the legacies of The King and The Intimidator in place. Even after winning his second Cup title last season, defending champ Tony Stewart doubts that he or anyone else will ever be able to come close to the Petty/Earnhardt milestone.

There's that word again: "milestone."

The five-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death is a milestone that hopefully will prompt us to reflect on his life, what he meant to NASCAR, how he changed the sport while alive and also how his death continued that change, particularly in the area of driver safety.

Sure, Earnhardt was a grizzled old cuss. He could tick you off with his gruff manner. And all too often, it was his way or no way, and NASCAR usually let him get away with it.
The reason was simple: because he could do it. He was the most powerful man in the sport and he cockily knew it. Bill France Jr. may have written the checks, but it was Earnhardt who laughed all the way to the bank.

Love him or hate him, fan or not, virtually everyone gave Earnhardt something that few people can command so universally: respect – and lots of it. He was the face of NASCAR, the man upon whose back the sport began its ride to unparalleled heights. It was Earnhardt who gave us so many memories, from the fabled "pass in the grass" to the tears that seeped from the corners of his eyes when he finally held the winner's trophy at Daytona in 1998.

It was on that day we learned that even as tough as he was on the race track, he could still be just as emotional. If Dale Earnhardt could shed a tear or two and not be embarrassed, we could, too. I often wonder what would have happened if Earnhardt had survived, or if the wreck never happened. Where would he be today?

Granted, he was in the twilight of his racing career at the time of his death, just a few months shy of his 50th birthday. It had been six years since his last Cup championship.
But as he was slowly edging toward retirement from driving, he was not retiring from racing. He was constructing an empire befitting of the name Earnhardt, building a future for his namesake, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I'm convinced that had he lived, the senior Earnhardt would have gone on to be one of the most successful owners in Cup competition. On a more personal note, perhaps the biggest loss wasn't the death of the racer, but the death of the man – the family man, that is. As he grew older, he had so many regrets over his youthful mistakes, including two failed marriages and not being involved in the raising of oldest son Kerry – yet he truly tried to right as many wrongs as he could.

And that's what makes the marking of the fifth anniversary of his death even sadder, as Earnhardt was robbed of so many opportunities, like growing old with wife Teresa, or eventually enjoying grandchildren.

As we all stop to pause and reflect back on the man's life, the way it was abruptly ended and what might have been if he lived on, at least we can be comforted by one thought.
Right or wrong, Earnhardt lived life his way. And he went out the way he probably would have wanted to, and the way we'll all remember him best: behind the wheel of his race car.

Now for the nam I cheer for now, the son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior's growth By Jerry Bonkowski, Yahoo! Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As a 26-year-old, Dale Earnhardt Jr. should have spent 2001 discussing future plans with his father.

You can just imagine them sitting on the back porch, sharing a couple cold bottles of Bud, talking about the elder Earnhardt's vision for the company he founded (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) and would likely someday turn over to his son.

They could have talked about the path the younger Earnhardt should take to become a dominant Cup driver just like his old man. Heck, they could even have talked about Junior one day settling down.

But alas, five years ago next week, the only words Junior ultimately would say to his father were a tearful and twangy "goodbye, Daddy" at the senior Earnhardt's funeral.

NASCAR has dramatically changed since Earnhardt's death. So has Dale Jr. himself.
Now, as he slides toward his 32nd birthday later this year, Junior is approaching a crossroads in both his racing career and his life.

People in their thirties are expected to leave behind their wild side and make a final transition from rowdy to respectable. They are expected to finally act their age and do the "adult" thing.
That transformation began early for Junior.

Before his father's death, Junior had been described as a hip-hop kid, known almost as much for his partying as for what he did on the race track. He loved his beer and made no attempt to cover it up. As long as it was Budweiser, he and his primary sponsor were happy. It seemed that almost every day was a party and Junior was the guy buying.

He also loved his rock and country music, to the point where he hung out with some of the biggest stars in the business, from Fred Durst to Kenny Chesney to Sheryl Crow (pre-Lance, that is). He'd even sneak cigarettes behind his hauler (away from his fans) like a naughty little boy puffing away behind the barn, not wanting his family to catch him – especially his father, lest he get his bottom paddled.

He had a rep of devil-may-care, to the point where he almost seemed bulletproof.
All of those activities or habits have been greatly diminished – if not eliminated – as Junior has grown older and continued to attain new heights of maturity since his father's passing.
He's even talked fondly and frequently in the last couple of years about how much he's looking forward to getting married some day and having kids.

"I've just got to find the right girl," he says with his well-known mischievous smile.
You know this maturing thing is getting serious if NASCAR's most eligible bachelor – sorry, Kasey or Tony – starts talking like that.

But that's all part of Earnhardt's steady progression to becoming his own man.
Sure, Junior still loves to race go-karts with friends on the track he had specially made behind his house, and he's known to compete in Internet racing leagues. But those activities are innocent enough that you can't help but cut him a little slack.

While there's no questioning his talent, Earnhardt also has picked up his father's business acumen, yet another indicator that his youth has been filed away in a closet like his old baseball cards, never to be seen again.

Junior has spent the last few years building yet another Earnhardt dynasty, laying the groundwork with a team that has won the last two Busch Series championships. He's also taken a greater role in planning DEI's future. There's even talk about forming his own Cup team one day, much like his father did while still driving for Richard Childress Racing.

But perhaps the most significant sign of Earnhardt's elevated maturity in 2006 will be a new dedication to his craft. He knows he's coming off a miserable season in 2005, one in which everything that could go wrong pretty much did.

The most popular driver in the sport also is cognizant of the fact that he still has yet to win his first Cup championship. His father earned the first of seven Cup championships in 1980 at age 29.
On the flip side, Junior has more Cup wins (16) at the age of 31 than his father did at that same age (seven wins). Also, his father didn't earn his second Cup title until he was 35. Junior still has nearly four years to reach that level.

But it's obviously not just about numbers.

The road Junior has traveled to become a mature, responsible adult since 2001 has been admirable, as he has evolved into someone his father would be very proud of. It's not only a testament to Junior's bloodlines but also to the way he was raised.

Sure, Junior would have loved to have had a lot more talks about racing and life with his father over the last five years, but it's pretty evident he learned some very valuable lessons from the many talks the two did have before that fateful February afternoon five years ago.

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