(WBTV) - Like many of you, I was a Dale guy. Always had been, loved the blue collar, rags to glory story. Pure American.
I remember bouncing up and down nervously in front of the TV in those closing laps of the '98 500. "20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration..." What a call by Mike Joy. It still rings in your ears.
Then came 2001. We were still living in Michigan. I remember the day so well largely because I was likely the last race fan on earth to hear the horrible news.
My wife and I were standing as Godparents to our neighbors' son. There was church and a reception so I set the VCR to record the race. We had four kids of our own all under six, so my plan was to wait for everyone to go to bed and watch the race in peace and quiet in the evening.
You could still do such a thing back then, there were no smart phones, news app blasts, Facebook or Twitter posts.
So, it was probably around 8 pm when the green flag dropped at my house and man what a race. The drivers were slicing and dicing, FOX Sports brought a new energy to the broadcasts, it was edge of your seat stuff. Then right around 11 pm, came the "big one." Not the Dale crash, the multi-car pile-up. Tony Stewart was in it, it was insane and I remember thinking I hope no one got hurt.
I paused the tape and wandered downstairs to get a drink. My mother-in-law was in the kitchen. Our twins were just a couple weeks old and she was helping out around the house. She saw me come into the kitchen (she knew nothing about racing) and said 'you watching that race? It was the lead story on the news tonight.' She didn't say anything else, sensing I didn't know what she was talking about.
I did find it weird, the big accident I just saw was wild, but not worthy of a lead story on evening newscast, besides it looked like no one was seriously hurt. I went back to the VCR and hit play again and as the laps wound down, the intensity was picking up and I began to feel a pit in my stomach. What was the lead story all about?
Then it happened, in the blink of an eye. A seemingly "harmless" wreck, one you'd seen a hundred times. Michael and Junior were going to finish one-two, but when the camera rested on the smoldering "3" car I knew the lead story was about Dale Earnhardt, but how bad was he hurt? Would he miss races? Was it career threatening?
I turned off the tape and turned to live television and what so many others had learned hours earlier I was just now learning. There would be no more races with Dale charging through the field after another mediocre qualifying run.
The Intimidator was gone. I mean it couldn't be, the man was indestructible, right? Instead, we were reminded no one is.
Four years later, we'd move to Charlotte and I'd visit Kannapolis, cover races and interview Dale Jr and Humpy Wheeler. It always left me bummed, that the man who worked so hard to become the best at what he does didn't get the chance, in retirement, to enjoy the fruits of all that he built. I guess there was another plan.
By the way, to this day I have no doubt Dale would have won championship number eight in 2001. That would have been the perfect way to end his amazing career. Sadly, it wasn't to be.