Safer, richer and better is Dale Earnhardt's legacy

Reminders of him are everywhere.

They're in the scores of "3"-clad fans flooding the grandstands, the flapping of Earnhardt flags over infield motorcoaches, and the impersonators who, like their Elvis counterparts, dedicate themselves to their mirrored glasses, moustaches and Goodyear jumpsuits in hopes of most resembling their idol.

"We're constantly reminded of him," driver Terry Labonte said.

The reminders are in the safety innovations of the past five years. They're in the stripes which form the letter "E" on the side of Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s cars. They're in chats with Mark Martin: "Being an old school guy," the retiring vet says, "I like to talk about back when. And a lot of that back when had to do with Dale."

And they're in that picture Jeff Gordon keeps with him still. The picture was taken at Pocono after Gordon had passed Earnhardt and the Intimidator rammed his car into the back of Gordon's. Earnhardt hit the gas, pushed Gordon down the back straightaway and kept on chugging through the turn. Gordon finally had to lay on the brake to keep from running straight into the wall, and when he did, Earnhardt turned him sideways.

Gordon remembers confronting Earnhardt about it afterward.

"Nope. Wasn't me," Earnhardt told Gordon. "I didn't do anything."

So Earnhardt's story stayed until one day a fan found Gordon and showed him the incredible photograph he shot from behind Turn 3 at Pocono. Gordon headed straight for Earnhardt's hauler.

"I told you," Gordon exalted. "Man, you were six inches underneath my rear bumper!"

Gordon still laughs when he sees that picture, which now also boasts Earnhardt's signature.

"It's the only autograph I've ever gotten from a driver that I've raced against," Gordon said.

Five years after NASCAR lost its seven-time champion in a final-turn crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500, reminders of Earnhardt are as numerous as the triumphs he spearheaded before he passed. They're in the head restraints every driver is now mandated to wear; in the nearly 75 million fans who follow the sport; in the purse and merchandising sales record NASCAR sets almost every week; and in the skill of the drivers Earnhardt elevated just by racing alongside.

Look at the heights the sport has reached since Feb. 18, 2001, and you'll see that traces of Earnhardt abound.

"It will never be the same because you're not going to replace someone like that, but the sport is in a better position," Dale Jarrett said. "A lot of that still comes -- even five years down the road now -- from the things that Dale did and was doing and was putting into place at that particular time."

NASCAR is safer, more popular, more lucrative and filled with more talent than when Earnhardt last flicked the ignition of his black No. 3 Monte Carlo. The sport has reached, and now thrives, in the mainstream of American sport, and it has its last great hero -- the man whose peers remember him as the "last cowboy" -- to thank for it.

Safety Advances
You hardly can look at a safety measure NASCAR has implemented over the past five years and not think of Earnhardt. The white-knuckle racer might not have introduced them. Nor did his death single-handedly prompt the research that has gone into making the sport safer. Still, the Earnhardt tragedy hastened the research and quickened the pace of a safety revolution like the sport had never seen.

Head-and-neck safety devices, crushable zones in cars, seat enhancements, and impact-absorbing SAFER barriers at tracks are only some of the advancements over the past five years.

"I think [Earnhardt's death] had such a huge impact on everyone from the safety side that it accelerated everything 100-fold," Jarrett said. "I think that there are things that we have put into place today that we would still just be considering. But [Earnhardt's death] made us look and realize that we couldn't afford to have that happen again, so they were put into place much quicker."

Kyle Petty was at the forefront of pushing for safety innovations. His son, Adam, was one of three drivers who died in the 13 months before Earnhardt's death shook stock-car racing to its foundation.

"Everybody believes that the day Dale got killed NASCAR went, 'Oh my God, we've got to get hold of this safety stuff. We've got to get ahead of this,' " Petty said. "That's false. That is truly false. From the day Adam's accident happened, and I can speak on a personal level, there was not many days or weeks that went by that I didn't speak with [NASCAR] … What happened was when Dale's accident happened, it moved from being an internal force [for change] to an external force. The guy that bought the ticket for the fourth row, the guy that bought the ticket for the 10th row, they began to voice their opinions."

Not only was there a new, external push for change, but NASCAR officials were no longer facing as much resistance from the inside. Drivers who once shunned safety devices, a camp in which Earnhardt most certainly was counted, began to embrace the idea of reducing racing's risks.

"When the biggest name in your sport goes through a crash and doesn't survive it," Gordon said, "it's a wake-up call to everybody."

The shift in attitude was most visible with respect to head-and-neck safety gear such as the HANS and Hutchens devices which secure a driver's neck and protects against the very injury -- a basilar skull fracture -- that claimed Earnhardt's life.

"I don't think there's any question that it accelerated the use of the HANS device," Jarrett said. "Anytime you look and see that your Superman, your hero was taken away …"

"I had no interest in the HANS until after the accident with Dale," Mark Martin said. "And then I took the information that we knew about HANS devices more seriously."

And the safety push continues.

Currently, NASCAR is working with car manufacturers and team owners to build the car of tomorrow. Not only will the car of tomorrow be able to transform from, say, an intermediate-track car to a short-track car, thereby saving owners money once it's implemented, but the car also combines cockpit, roll-cage, seat and other safety innovations to continue making racing less risky.

Some have expressed concern over the skyrocketing costs associated with the endeavor, though, and drivers like Petty are growing impatient with the sentiment.

"The car is a safer car because the driver is moved over, because of the crush zone, because of the things they've implemented," Petty said. "When I hear other owners or fans or the press say, 'My God, that's got to be expensive … ' Alright, so now we're going to start putting dollars on people's lives? When you've lost a son, there's no price you can put on safety of a driver, no price at all."

That the arrival of sorely-needed safety initiatives might be Earnhardt's most lasting legacy is amusing to those who are convinced that the Last Cowboy himself would have cursed the movement. He was a no-frills, drive-like-my-daddy-did kind of racer who even opted for an open-faced helmet when the least every other driver could do was wear a more advanced version of head protection. And though he drove on the edge, Earnhardt never encouraged younger, less-experienced racers to do so. Many say the newfound feeling of invincibility the safety measures has created makes young drivers more aggressive.

No one would venture that the safety advances were a tribute to what the fallen legend would have wanted. Instead, they are a tribute to what his loss meant. The very invocation of Earnhardt's name can calm the fiercest resistance and command the attention of the most Earnhardt-like opposed to safety talks.

Consider the speed with which defending Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart found an audience Sunday with NASCAR's leaders after warning that rules changes at Daytona International Speedway have created racing conditions for this week's Daytona 500 ripe for a repeat of the Earnhardt tragedy.

That remembering Earnhardt is the surest way to gain consideration for a safety advancement is pure irony.

"He'd think a lot [like] he thought when he was here," Gordon ventured. "It's getting too big, not enough focus on the racing. You guys are all too worried about safety."

And yet, to a man the drivers feel more secure in their cars. To a man, they all agree that the sport is safer. And whether Earnhardt would have fought for it or not, his death was the catalyst for the advancements which have presided over this five-year period without a fatality on the track.

Soaring Popularity
The reminders of Earnhardt are in every ratings point, every ticket sold at new speedways in major markets, every cover story in mainstream sports media and everything else that has gone into making NASCAR the second-most popular sport in the nation.

"I don't think there's any doubt that it created a lot of attention and focus to the sport for a long period of time," Jarrett said of the weeks and months following Earnhardt's crash. "I think a lot of that was set up because of things that Dale had done up to that point, so we're just reaping the benefits of all of that now. But there's no doubt that it brought a lot of attention to the sport. … As unfortunate as the accident was, a lot of good things have come from it and the sport has gone exactly where he was trying to take it at that time."

The movement to take NASCAR into the mainstream was begun before the accident, with the signing of a network TV deal, the unveiling of new NASCAR destinations and the constant tweaking of competition rules to create a more entertaining product. But when Earnhardt died, it detonated a frenzy of attention and legions tuned in just in time to see the movement take hold.

After the crash, Earnhardt became the first NASCAR driver to grace the cover of Time magazine. Coverage of his funeral rivaled that of heads of state. His story and face, and with it NASCAR, was plastered all over the media -- and not just in sporting outlets, but on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. And in the years since, drivers are now often featured in national commercials in major markets, they are presenters at awards shows, and guests at celebrity tournaments. Gordon became the first NASCAR driver to host "Saturday Night Live" and has emerged as a familiar fill-in host for "Live! with Regis and Kelly."

Could Earnhardt have pulled off "Saturday Night Live" or playing host alongside Regis or Kelly? Maybe he could not. But Earnhardt's strategic posturing while he was alive paved the way for the likes of Gordon.

"The biggest thing that I realized is that [while] we all look out for what's best for each of us, he had this sport in mind when he went to NASCAR [or] when he came to the drivers," Jarrett said. "He certainly made a lot of good money in this, but his biggest thing was what was going to be best for our sport. Every decision that he made [was] looking at that, and it's hard to find someone like that.

"If he could look at us right now and see what has happened, he would have a huge smile on his face because even though there's nobody there to take his place, the sport has done exactly what he wanted it to do, and that's get to the top."

When Earnhardt was around, he would effect change through his position as sheriff of the NASCAR garage -- a position to which he was neither elected nor nominated.

Said Jarrett: "He took it, just like he did everything else."

He would sit around and think about what was best for the sport and he would carry that message directly to the drivers and to NASCAR's top officials. He would talk about the competitive changes that were necessary to make the sport more entertaining and the strategic changes that the sanctioning body should consider to make the sport more versatile. Today, there remains a void in the position that Earnhardt once filled.

"There's a lot of drivers I respect and a lot of drivers that know exactly what they're talking about, but they don't necessarily get that ear from NASCAR that dad got," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think NASCAR just periodically, they like to be able to pick and choose who they listen to [and] go to for advice. I wish we did have that voice."

Petty doesn't believe that "voice" -- silenced upon Earnhardt's death -- will ever reemerge.

"There were times in the past when, whether it was Richard Petty or Bobby Allison or Cale Yarborough or Darrell Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt, [a driver] could just go up in the [NASCAR] truck and speak for everybody and speak for everything that's going on," he said. "That day is long gone. That day was coming to an end before Earnhardt's accident ever happened. The sport has changed. There's so many more outside influences."

Jarrett agrees that there will never be another guy to grow the sport like Earnhardt did. But for different reasons.

"I'm not sure that that person is out there … ," he said. "It's just like saying that everyone is looking for the next Michael Jordan. Well, those are pretty big shoes to fill. I don't know that you're going to have the whole package in one person again."

Marketing Boom
The reminders are in almost every dollar today's racers cash.

One of the things that made Earnhardt so unique was that he came up a hard scrabble racer on the dirt tracks of North Carolina, racing just to put food on the table. He was a blue-collar folk hero, never willing to join his neighbors who committed to life working in the mills. But he never was willing to forget them, either, even when they teased him for living broke on weekends he ran poorly and for just scraping by even when he placed high.

Even when Earnhardt started out in NASCAR, a full-time Cup ride was no guarantee of financial luxury. That idea is foreign today, and that's in large part because of Earnhardt. He built an empire around his black No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, his elaborate signature and his lifestyle and likeness. With help from wife Teresa, he led the merchandising boom which has made some NASCAR drivers among the highest-paid athletes in the world.

"I can remember telling my wife, 'I love to go and do photo shoots and things with Dale Earnhardt because we're getting in there and getting the hell out. We ain't going to waste any time,' " Jarrett said. "I know that I'm going to be through early if I'm doing a commercial with Dale Earnhardt because he was in charge of everything."

But as big as he got and as much money as his merchandising ventures brought in -- and with four trailers traveling to each race to hawk all-things-Earnhardt prior to his death, there was a lot of cash coming in -- Earnhardt never forgot the common man who made him rich and who rooted for him on Sundays. He was vocal with his sponsors at times, refusing to race too many paint schemes because he knew his fans would break the bank trying to buy die-cast replicas of his rig the moment a new design came out.

In a twist of fate, as Earnhardt paved the way for corporate America to garner a larger role in the sport, ushering in an era of big-money sponsors and highly paid drivers, he made it more difficult for anyone of his mold to make it big in NASCAR afterward.

"People want that good-looking guy that can go to their board room and talk and say all the right things and is going to do all the right things on and off the race track," Jarrett said. "That wasn't necessarily Dale Earnhardt."

But while Earnhardt was the right man for a time when NASCAR was still largely a Southern sport, he was also the right man to take it to the corners of the nation. Today's drivers don't have that same rough-neck edge that Earnhardt made famous, but it's because of Earnhardt that they don't need to.

"I'm not sure that just because [rookie] Reed Sorenson didn't have to race cars to put food on the table doesn't mean that he can't be as passionate," Martin said. "It's a different time and a different age. But certainly as an old-school guy, I don't think I have the words for it yet to explain why [Earnhardt] was able to have the kind of impact that he had on the sport."

Legacy of Talent
The reminders of Dale Earnhardt are on the track every weekend in the quality of racing we see. It's not just Dale Earnhardt Jr., who certainly has had moments when he's brought tears to the eyes of fans by winning or making a move reminiscent of the old man. No, Earnhardt's mark on the track is much more widespread.

At least a little was tucked away in that jaw-dropping, keep-her-steady-through-the-grass move Tony Stewart made last year at Daytona. He was a rookie two years before Earnhardt died, one of many of the young guns the aging legend enjoyed helping out and advising.

A lot of Earnhardt was seen, if you ask Martin, in Martin's recently resurrected competitiveness.

"He made us all better drivers," Martin said.

It's all over the way Gordon races, too.

"I loved racing with him and I hated racing with him," he said. "I mean, he was one of the most competitive guys out there. There were days where he'd push you and shove you right out of the way and frustrate you. Then there were other days where you just saw his talent, you know, the passion that he had for it, and you had a blast racing with him. You knew if you beat Dale, especially at a place like Daytona, Talladega, Bristol or something where he was good, that you really had done something. [You] took a lot of pride in that."

Earnhardt made drivers better by raising the level of competition on the track. But he also made it happen with an encouraging word or sincere advice off of it.

"He was the type that would intimidate and push you around on the track," Michael Waltrip recalled shortly after Earnhardt's death, "but was always willing to help afterward. … He was great at taking the young drivers aside, and even older guys like me, and explaining things and talking to you."

For many drivers, those are the biggest and the best reminders. The memories of a hard-edged racer with a soft side. For the fans, too, perhaps the most precious thing Earnhardt left in his wake, the most indelible mark he left behind, was his legacy. The sport is so much a tapestry of personalities and memories and some of the best, the most touching and, yes, also most infuriating, have to do with Earnhardt.

"Every sport, I think, needs their heroes and we have our heroes here in this sport," Martin said, "but they are heroes very much different than Dale Earnhardt. There just won't be another one. I don't think there ever will be."

It's funny how some days it feels like five days since he died and on others it feels like five decades. At times, you look around a race track's infield and witness the sea of motor homes draped in black and flying tributes to the fallen legend which, at some venues, outnumber those of every other racer still taking green and checkered flags. At those times, it's like he never left at all.

Without question, traces and reminders of him linger still.

Earnhardt left behind a period of success and innovation unrivaled in NASCAR history. What's more, he left behind an idea. A vision of the driver of yesteryear, one of the last to come up in an age when it was only for the love of sport because the money wasn't necessarily the best. The Last Cowboy, as his son remembers him even now.

"It's good that he's still on people's minds," Earnhardt Jr. said. "People still miss him. I still like to see the 3's, the stickers in the back of everybody's pickup truck and stuff like that. I want his legacy to be -- to be sort of a John Wayne-type or, you know, a Clint Eastwood-style legacy. That he did a good job when he worked. He'd give you everything he could give you. He'd try to do his best. He was respected, well-mannered, and treated people the way he wanted to be treated."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.