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A Day for Dale

Punch: Earnhardt unselfish at the end

Miller: Earnhardt bridged gaps

Thursday, June 21, 2001
Earnhardt's humanity evident off track
By Kenny Mayne

I've forgotten the order to the process one goes through when coping with death. So I'll just go with denial for the time being. Because if Dale Earnhardt can die in a car, it must mean everyone dies eventually if they race long enough.

No one likes to talk about it, but death is as much a certainty in auto racing as broken bones are in football. Even knowing this, I never gave consideration to the possibility that Dale Earnhardt could die. He's Dale Earnhardt, after all. He was supposed to race as long as he pleased, continue to run others off the track, win a record breaking eighth title, then go away on his boat and fish for marlin.

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt's reputation as the Intimidator was evident on the track and absent off it.
He invited me to his boat once and I was sure he was jerking me around. I was certain he wanted to see me get all excited about actually being on Dale Earnhardt's boat before giving me an elbow in the ribs and laughing at my gullibility. He'd thoroughly embarrassed me once before when he came into our studio at Daytona, glanced across the room at me and asked, "Are you still dating Jeff Gordon?" Dale had apparently noticed our abundance of stories about the emerging star. It was his way of saying the guy standing in our studio was still a story.

So now I'm on the boat, eating dinner with Dale and his wife, wondering why I am on Dale Earnhardt's boat eating dinner with him and his wife. What's the opposite of denial? Acceptance? It was that night I began to understand Earnhardt wasn't the tough guy he was made out to be. His nickname may have accurately described his method of driving, but he blew the whole intimidation thing when he nursed my cold. He drew the line at offering me a sweater. A man's got to protect his image.

Come to think of it, he was looking rather human the year before when he cried after winning his first Daytona 500. A lot of people cried that day. They're the same ones crying now.

Last fall Dale appeared as a panelist on ESPN's Two Minute Drill. In the run-through for the show he was having trouble reading his questions. It wasn't that he couldn't read well. He just couldn't read without his glasses. He proceeded to carry on this debate with himself in front of the group. He didn't want to wear his glasses because he thought it would make him look old. But he didn't want to go without the glasses because it might make him look dumb if he stumbled.

The thing is, he cared what people thought of him. This went against everything we'd been taught about Dale Earnhardt. He was the one with the rough exterior, menacing looks and threatening driving style.

But he was worried about how he might look in four minutes worth of content on a quiz show. It didn't come off as egotistical in the least. Rather, it was disarming. Dale Earnhardt wanted to be liked. He wasn't a machine. He just drove one.

In the end he did the show without the glasses. His eyesight betrayed him and he missed a couple cues. I read his questions and no one knew any different. And the best thing was Dale Earnhardt neither looked old nor dumb.

He looked human.

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