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Tuesday, April 24
No 50th for No. 3
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

I have covered sports of all types for nearly three decades. I've seen champions made and defeated, underdogs come out of nowhere to become unlikely winners, perennial defeatists become laughingstocks, and honest losers turn into cheating winners.

I've seen athletes play through the pain of minor injuries, while watching others die before my very eyes, doing what they loved doing.

Dale Earnhardt fans
Fans hold up three fingers to honor the late Dale Earnhardt on the third lap of the Talladega 500.

But I don't think I've ever seen the type of lasting reaction and postmortem shock that continues to result from the death of Dale Earnhardt more than two months ago at the season-opening Daytona 500.

To this day, we still see dozens of signs in the stands at each race memorializing the fallen seven-time Winston Cup champ. We still see fans stand up in unison on the third lap of each race, holding three fingers aloft in a touching salute to their fallen icon. We still hear pre-race invocations celebrate the memory and life of one Dale Earnhardt.

Because we never had a chance to say goodbye while he was still alive, nor did he have the opportunity to thank his fans for more than 25 years of support, this season is turning out to be Earnhardt's "farewell tour" from Winston Cup racing. The only thing missing is Earnhardt himself.

Yet, almost everywhere you go or anything you see that's related to Cup racing continues to have some reference to Earnhardt, keeping his memory so alive that it seems he's still with us today in some fashion.

Such reactions and tributes to Earnhardt are therapeutic for his fans and his fallen comrades -- the drivers -- alike. That's why the memory and legend of No. 3 are being kept alive in a tribute fitting for only a select few individuals, such as a head of state like John F. Kennedy or an entertainment icon like Elvis Presley.

It has been nearly 25 years since Presley died, and nearly 40 years since Kennedy was assassinated ... yet they continue to live on in our hearts and memories. For many of us, it seems as if they just died yesterday.

That's the type of staying power Earnhardt will likely have in the minds of NASCAR fans for many years, and perhaps decades, to come. He made such an impact upon the sport, upon the fans, upon his fellow drivers.

I think second-year Cup driver Dave Blaney summed things up the best when he said recently, "It's just not the same without Dale around. You almost feel like the leader is gone. He put a certain flair into a lot of races and he's been badly missed."

Earnhardt's "farewell tour" continues Sunday in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at the California Speedway in suburban Los Angeles. But of all the testimonials and ceremonies that have honored the late Intimidator since he died on Feb. 18, Sunday's could be the most heartfelt and heart-wrenching.

The reason: If he was still with us, Dale Earnhardt would have turned 50 years old this Sunday.

Only minutes after the announcement was made that Earnhardt had died, I began to write a column that attempted to memorialize his 49-plus years of life and three decades of racing. I was as stunned and as shocked as anyone by his death, and it was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to write.

The one thing that stands out in that column was a simple phrase I kept repeating throughout my tribute to Earnhardt: "It wasn't supposed to happen this way." He was supposed to go on and win several more Winston Cup titles.

He was supposed to be in victory lane when Dale Jr. won his first Cup championship. He was supposed to be in the hospital waiting room when his children presented him with grandchildren. He was supposed to grow old with his wife Teresa. He was supposed to become NASCAR's ultimate cowboy, riding off into the sunset at the end of his career but never really dying.

It's just not the same without Dale around. You almost feel like the leader is gone. He put a certain flair into a lot of races and he's been badly missed.
Dave Blaney
Instead, we're now facing Sunday, which could arguably be the toughest day for Earnhardt family members and fans everywhere since the day he died. Just when the healing had started, when folks were getting over their grief and converting it into lasting memories of Earnhardt, the fact that he would have hit the half-century mark Sunday if he was still alive will reopen wounds as if the accident was just yesterday: the visions of his fatal crash, the shock of his death and the disbelief of his funeral.

Like Kennedy and Presley, Earnhardt left us way too young. Even with all of his accomplishments in his all-too-short life, there were still so many more -- both professional and personal -- that he had left to enjoy. He was the type of fan favorite that transcended generations: Even if they couldn't agree on anything else, there were countless numbers of fathers and sons who found a common bond by concurring that Earnhardt was the best ... and their respective favorite driver.

That's why Sunday will be so bittersweet, in much the same way Presley's birthday on Jan. 8 is celebrated and revered every year by his millions of fans. Earnhardt fans will know it's Dale's birthday, will send prayers of good wishes to the heavens, but still have a twinge of regret that he wasn't still on earth to celebrate such a memorable milestone with us.

Yet, while there will be little celebrating this weekend of the date he came into this world, you'd better believe guys like Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and so many others that have gone to the big racetrack in the sky will be throwing Dale one humdinger of a party.

Happy 50th, Dale.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com

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