You chose to root for a champion with a record and reputation that earned him such a namesake.
I chose to root for a popular name and a black car.
You defended this man as a man would defend his family. Your devotion was built on history and pure love for the character.
My devotion was built on popularity and image. Hence, my loyalty was not as pure.
I suppose that would explain why I was never so quick to defend him when I thought his on-track antics were less than honorable. Instead, I found myself feeling uneasy as I supported a driver that didn’t emulate the kind of person I would be if I were in his position.
I felt my devotion waning. As I now became more familiar and knowledgeable in the sport, I felt my loyalties searching for a new home. It didn’t take long for them to find a more suitable driver in Bobby Labonte.
Still, my views on the #3 didn’t hinder my respect for the man behind the wheel. Who am I to come along decades after the sport has begun and try to find fault with its current champion? It’s golden egg? Its intimidator? The man who "could see air"? He was cheered by the most fans and respected by the greatest drivers in the sport. I wasn’t about to stand in front of millions of people and tell them that they didn’t know what they were talking about. I knew my choice to switch loyalties had less to do with righteousness as it did with finding myself in a driver.
So, towards the end of 1998, I started to find what I was looking for in Bobby Labonte. By the middle of the 1999 season, I could cheer on no other driver like I did for Bobby. I can even remember feeling the irony of liking a driver that drove for Joe Gibbs because I hated the Redskins. I got over that.
Well, well, well, look at what the 2000 season brought me. Dale Earnahrdt was hot on Bobby’s tail in the race for the championship for the entire year. It couldn’t have been a better match for me. It would prove to be a season that saw me get a little tired of hearing about the "Intimidator" and his quest for #8 (he had seven championships). Every time I went to internet race sites, the talk was of Dale Earnhardt. He became my object of "negative thoughts" for the 2000 season. To add to my frustration, his son came onto the Winston Cup scene as a rookie in this same year. Now there were two of them to irk me.
There was no shortage of drama for the #3 and #18 in 2000. My heart was in my throat as I watched Bobby stick to Dale’s bumper like a piece of splattered road tar as they circled around the closing laps in Atlanta. On the last lap, Bobby ducked under Dale to race him to the line and lost by, … 3 inches? Oh, was I steamed!! I had to endure the wrath of the Earnhardt fans again!
Why do I say again? The Earnhardt fans had enough to talk about without their driver winning. You couldn’t keep these fans down. No matter what situation Dale found himself in at the checkered flag, his fans were sure to put the best possible spin on his performance. It made it that much more frustrating to be pulling for any other, let alone the one who was one spot ahead of him in first place. I couldn’t even gloat because the #3 fans were as fearless and confident in their driver as their driver was in his Chevy.
NASCAR is a novel with many chapters. For me, Dale Earnhardt was the villain. He was the one whose adversity made me cheer. He was the one whose victories made me fume. Still, there was always next week. A new battle, a new race. There was always another Sunday that was sure to write another chapter.
Chapter after chapter, Dale Earhardt always ticked me off. Still, even when he was not the focus of the race, I wanted to know where he was. How was his car handling? When will he be making his move? What has he got up his sleeve? What kind of supernatural deal has he made this time to pull off miraculous come from behind victory? Lord knows that if you gave Dale 10 laps and a running car with at least three tires, your position on the same track was not secure.
The 2001 Daytona 500 was another chapter. Once again, Dale proved to be full of surprises. You can’t blame me for thinking he would win this race. He could do so much from 43rd spot that, with him running in the top ten all day, many felt a victory for him was inevitable. With ten laps to go, he couldn’t have asked for a better scenario. He was comfortably in 3rd place with his only company at the front of the field being his very own cars. In first place was Michael Waltrip, his new driver who was still looking for his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory.
Commentating his first Winston Cup race was Michael’s legendary brother, Darrel, after retiring one year earlier. What a story it would be to have Mikey’s first victory be the Daytona 500 while his brother called the win!
To add to the drama, in second place was the villain’s very own son. It was a fitting scenario in a grand tale – From first to third were the sentimental favorite, the rookie and the champion.
Still, I knew the older, evil villain would swoop in to snatch victory from the hands of the young ones in front of him. This is racing! With adrenaline pumping at 190 mph, there is no room for Hollywood scripts and family favors.
What is this I see? The man in black is not capitalizing on a long line of cars behind him that would easily push him to the front. Instead, he has positioned himself between his younger guns and the hungry beasts from the asphalt jungle. Like mad hornets, the competition is swarming behind him as they search for a line to the front. For this moment, he is not The Intimidator. He is Dale Earnhardt: father, car owner, and racecar driver. Like a dad who watches a boy drop his line into the river where the big fish swim, he sits back and hushes those behind him. He says, "Shhhhhhhh, look at these kids up here…isn’t it beautiful?"
Like an old bear, he has played hard with his child to teach him toughness. He has been the one that cubs would observe in the quest to gain survival skills in an unforgiving environment. Now, he sits in the field, albeit of cars and watches his son do battle with another driver who he has taken under his wing. A driver that many others wouldn’t have given a chance. Still, he knew what to look for and he proved his choices again today.
I looked at my wife and said, ‘Ya know, if he keeps that position, I will have a whole new outlook on him." I was getting Goosebumps at the show of honor and the story unfolding before me. I knew this was a special day in NASCAR. I waited for Jr. to make his move. Surely he would have to give it a shot. I would completely understand that.
Well, if he did, he didn’t try hard enough to convince me. It simply looked like this ending was not going to be spoiled by the desires of a young man whom, in my book, gained years of maturity with his actions behind that wheel. Yea, he would have taken it, but he wasn’t going to force it. It was Mikey’s race.
I witnessed many things today. I saw Mikey Waltrip win his first Winston Cup race in the form of the Daytona 500. I heard Darrel Waltrip call the race with glee, then cry tears of joy as he celebrated with his little brother. I saw a Dale Jr. let victory wait for another day.
Above all, I saw the most selfless act I have seen in racing. I saw that the villain was no villain at all. I saw him hug and kiss his wife before the race. Why I remember that, I don’t know, but it was poignant. Then, I saw him fight with all his heart to move back and forth in a fierce field of cars only to back off in sight of victory to secure a victory for someone else. I saw the villain become a guardian angel.
Then I saw the angel go home.
In memory of the great #3, no win is complete without you on the track to have competed with. Still, as my driver will lead laps to come, I will never count out the possibility of The Intimidator coming from nowhere and nosing him out at the checkered flag.
February 18th, 2001