LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It was the middle of the night, and a winter moon hung like a bull's-eye over Orangeburg, S.C.
On the porch of a hunting cabin nestled in a pine forest, two men sat and talked, sharing the easy camaraderie that develops between longtime friends and hunting partners.
In his mind's eye, Ned Yost, the Atlanta Braves third base coach, can see the porch and the rocking chairs he and Dale Earnhardt shared nearly seven years ago, and his eyes mist with tears.
"I can remember it clear as day," Yost said. "It was about three o'clock in the morning, a beautiful night, full moon, and it was just us on the porch. This was just after Ernie Irvan got hurt real bad at Michigan and they thought he was going to die. Dale looked at me and said, `You know, if this can happen to Ernie, it can happen to me.'
"Until that moment, I had never thought about it. I had never considered that it could happen to him."
Yost is standing inside the Braves spring training clubhouse. It is early Monday morning, and the shock of Earnhardt's death on the last lap of Sunday's Daytona 500 is etched in tight lines and dark circles beneath his eyes. He is holding a pen and he twists it as he talks, the pen moving in erratic circles like a magician's trick.
"As soon as the wreck happened, I knew from my experience in racing that those are bad accidents," said Yost, who crewed for Earnhardt several times. "Then when I saw Kenny Schrader's face when he came out from the infield hospital, I got in my car and headed for Daytona. I knew he was hurt, but it didn't even enter my mind that he was hurt bad.
"I called (Dale's pilot) and said, `What do you know?' And he said, `I don't know anything.' I said, `I'm coming because I know Dale is going to spend the night in the hospital. I'll come up and hang with you guys.'
"About half an hour later he called me and said, `He's gone.' I said, `What do you mean he's gone? He left the hospital?' `No,' he said, `he didn't make it.' I stopped right there and turned around and came home."
Yost remembered that former Braves catcher Jody Davis, a longtime hunting buddy, asked to bring along a friend on a planned hunt about 15 years ago. Davis's friend turned out to be Earnhardt, and soon a deep bond developed between the two men.
"He's probably the most incredible person I've ever met," Yost said. "Probably, for a guy with a sixth-grade education, he's the smartest man I ever met. This isn't stuff I'm saying now that he's gone; this is stuff I've felt all along.
"He was the fiercest competitor I've ever met, but the thing that impressed me the most about him was he was a great family man, a great husband, a great dad, but he was such a great competitor who had his priorities in order. He didn't let his fierceness and his drive to be the best interfere with his family life."
When Earnhardt won his seventh Winston Cup championship at Rockingham, N.C., in 1994, Yost was there to celebrate with him. The crew handed Earnhardt a bottle of champagne inscribed with "Seven-time Winston Cup Champion" and he popped the cork, took a sip and offered the customary spray of bubbly.
"He handed me the bottle and said, `I want you to keep this. I don't want anybody to have this except you,"' Yost said. "The cool thing was the next day in the paper there was a huge picture of Dale and myself, and Dale was holding up the bottle of champagne and there was only two bottles like that. He gave one to Richard (car owner Childress), and he gave me the other one."
Through Yost, Earnhardt became a diehard Braves fan. And, Braves manager Bobby Cox, a longtime Indy car racing fan, met Earnhardt and became a NASCAR fan. Cox didn't learn of Earnhardt's death until Sunday night, and the news hit him hard.
"He had a smile that was catchy," said Cox, who attended last November's final race of the NASCAR season at Atlanta Motor Speedway and greeted Earnhardt afterward. "He's got the scowl and the smile. I think we all take it for granted that everybody is going to survive every race. I still can't hardly believe it. It's hard to get over something like that."
Several years ago, Earnhardt gave Cox an autographed racing helmet. Cox responded by commissioning a bat made from black walnut and inlaid with mother of pearl to commemorate Earnhardt's first Daytona 500 win in 1998. Cox later learned Earnhardt hung the bat behind his office desk in North Carolina.
Earnhardt often joked with Cox about managing and Cox said he planned to invite him to sit on the bench during a spring training game and manage the team.
"He was pretty superstitious, and he got to thinking that every time he showed, we got beat," Cox said. "So if it was a big series, there was no way, if we invited him down, that he would come. He'd watch it at home."
Monday was a difficult day for Yost. After a sleepless night, his thoughts were on Earnhardt throughout the team's morning workout. He may attend his friend's funeral in Kannapolis, N.C., and pay his last respects to a man he considered a brother.
"We were in Iowa together last December, and he had a sponsorship commitment with Budweiser in Texas," Yost said. "We had hunted together for three days, and we were having a blast. Dale didn't want to go, and we were telling him the weather was too bad and he should stay. You could tell he wanted to stay, and finally he said, `Hey, this is a $10 million sponsor. Will you guys leave me alone? I'm trying to make up my mind.'
"I'll never forget it now. I said, `Dale, we didn't want to admit this to you, but now we're going to have to. Look, we don't want you to go because we love you.' He got the biggest smile on his face and he kind of just calmed down. Even though it was in jest, it was true.
"Everybody in that room did love him. At least we got to tell him that."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.