Big E: Maker Of Memories

It was something I never thought I'd see at Daytona. The sight of rescue crews cutting Dale Earnhardt out of his No. 3 car after a devastating wreck never even registered on my radar as something in the realm of possibility.

Now, days later, after his burial and memorial service in Charlotte, it's still impossible to get one's arms around the idea.

By now you've seen the video, maybe even saw the wreck in person. By now you've thought through all the possibilities, all the reasons why Big E should still be with us, still be preparing to saddle up at Rockingham this Sunday.

I'm not interested in cataloging the safety questions that have been raised. They've been talked to exhaustion in the past 10 months, since the tragic wreck that took Adam Petty.

It's clear that virtually everyone involved in the motorsports industry is looking at a range of ways to afford drivers more help in surviving bad wrecks.

It's also clear that 98 percent of serious racers are using all the safety devices, all the latest technology, they can find.

When soft walls are developed to the point where track operators and sanctioning bodies are convinced they'll help more than they'll hurt, I have no doubt that we will see them on the guardrails at Daytona and Talladega, Charlotte and Fontana, Texas and New Hampshire.

I've talked to many at the top levels of the sport the past few days, and they all agree that progress is being made, that it must be made, and that racing will get safer.

Much of the drive is humanitarian. Dale Earnhardt had close personal relationships with racing's leading figures, and none of them wants his death to be in vain.

And, it's good business. Not to sound crass, but those key figures also realize that if big-league racing is to thrive in the coming years, having icons die in action is unacceptable.

But I'm choosing to focus on memories of Earnhardt's incomparable on-track exploits.

Dale Earnhardt was in the field of the first race I ever called on television, the 1982 Mountain Dew 500 from Pocono, aired in a two-hour format a couple of weeks after the event on the old Mizlou Television Network. (You can still see the race late at night on Speedvision pretty regularly.)

He appeared in the "open" of the show, bushy hair, bushy mustache, dirty Wrangler uniform and all, sitting in the TV truck watching a tape of his Pocono wreck the previous year.

Ever since, I've felt some level of kinship with the Intimidator.

So, I got a particular kick out of what happened last Friday, two days before his 500 crash, at Daytona.

Earnhardt has long treated Daytona like it's his kitchen, and other drivers are trying to steal the silver. That's the treatment he gave Eddie Cheever during the IROC opener at Daytona when Cheever was cheeky enough to try to deny Big E his chosen line going into Turn 1 late in the race.

I was behind pit road, watching on the Jumbotron, and only saw it once. But it sure looked to me as if Cheever held his line while Earnhardt tried to barge in on the low side as the pack set up for the first turn. Earnhardt of course is a past IROC champion and many-time winner.

After the checkers, I heard a roar from the crowd. Looking up, I saw Cheever's car spinning through the backstretch grass... apparently after a retaliatory tap from the Intimidator.

Next, the cars stopped on pit road, and Earnhardt went to "talk" to Cheever. While Eddie was still strapped in, Earnhardt leaned into the window and said something like "Get out, I never hit a man in a car.”

After Cheever climbed out and stammered out a couple of apologies, Earnhardt put his arm around Eddie, grinned, shook his hand, and leaned over to pass on more words of Winston Cup wisdom.

Those within earshot say the comment ran something like this: "Listen, what happened on the backstretch stays on the backstretch, alright?"

The kind of advice no driver ignores, especially when it came from Dale Earnhardt.

Cheever, for his part, couldn't back and fill quickly enough while verbally defending the honor of open-wheel racers.

It wasn't Earnhardt's most spectacular moment, though the conflagration was one of the most entertaining in Speedweeks. But it was the essential Earnhardt... showcasing the man's strongest qualities.

And it was another chapter in the man's legend... one I'll never forget.

RIP, Dale.

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