DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When Kenny Schrader ran up to Dale Earnhardt's crumpled race car Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, he expected to find the most intimidating driver in the sport's history in a tirade over losing the Daytona 500.
What he found was that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was gone.
In the split-second it took his car to veer to the right and hit the concrete wall in the fourth turn, the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion went from race contender to one of the most significant race casualties in the sport's 52-year history.
The man who loved Daytona more than any other spent a storied life in the raceway's fast lane. And just a half-mile short of the checkered flag, he died there.
"We've lost Dale Earnhardt," said NASCAR President Mike Helton as his voice cracked and his eyes welled with pain.
For more than 199 laps, it appeared Mr. Earnhardt was putting himself in position to win his 35th career race at the famed facility and his second Daytona 500. He was third behind Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr. as they sped through the fourth turn for the last time.
Whether Mr. Earnhardt could pass Mr. Waltrip and Mr. Earnhardt Jr. didn't matter. He was the car owner for both. But Mr. Waltrip, who won the race, said the victory would have certainly been challenged.
"There were no promises," Mr. Waltrip said after winning for the first time in 463 career starts. "Dale Jr. didn't say `If you get in the lead, we'll follow you.' I was watching them both carefully. I didn't expect anything out of them. I expected the unexpected."
There were no challenges. Sterling Marlin and Rusty Wallace closed in on Mr. Earnhardt's rear bumper, and from there, nobody knows exactly what caused Mr. Earnhardt's car to drop to the apron, then suddenly turn right and slam into Mr. Schrader's car and the outside wall at the same time.
"I guess someone got into Dale because Dale got into me and then we went up," Mr. Schrader said. "We hit pretty hard and Dale hit harder."
Oddly enough, it was the same kind of accident at the same place on the race track where Mr. Earnhardt's best friend, Neil Bonnett, died while practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500.
"We went in there sixth (on the final lap) and came out third," Mr. Wallace said. "We just drove into the corners, pile-drived through them, and that's all you can do. Everybody else was wrecking and crashing, and I had to go for it."
Without help from his father, the younger Mr. Earnhardt didn't even try to pass Mr. Waltrip in the final half-mile.
As the top-two finishers drove by the crash on their cool-down lap, they had no way of knowing how bad things had become.
"I expected him to get out of the car and show up at Rockingham (N.C.) next week and beat us," said driver Jeremy Mayfield after hearing the stunning news that Mr. Earnhardt died instantly. "It was a tough hit, but man, that's Earnhardt."
The cause of death apparently was a fracture at the base of the skull. It's the same thing that killed Adam Petty last April, Kenny Irwin last July and Tony Roper last November.
"We all did everything we could for him," said Dr. Steve Bohannon, emergency medical services director for the Daytona International Speedway. "He had what I felt were life-ending-type injuries at the time of impact. And really, nothing could be done for him.
"I know the full-face helmet wouldn't have made a difference," Dr. Bohannon said. "I don't know if the HANS (Head And Neck Safety) device would have helped. I suspect not."
Mr. Earnhardt, 49, had 676 career starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He had 76 victories, 70 second-place finishes and 59 thirds. His seven Winston Cup Series titles gave him a share of a NASCAR record with Richard Petty.
"There's no way to replace him," said Ed Clark, president of the Atlanta Motor Speedway and one of Mr. Earnhardt's many friends. "This is a huge, huge, huge loss. It's going to take everybody a long time to get over this."
During his 23-year Winston Cup career, Mr. Earnhardt amassed a stock car-record $41,639,662.
He is survived by his wife, Teresa, sons Dale Jr. and Kerry, and daughters Kelly and Taylor Nicole.
He also leaves behind a three-car race team that finished first and second Sunday.
Funeral arrangements will be announced today.