Life reserved most of its cruelty regarding Dale Earnhardt for the final laps of the Daytona 500.
Death sneaked up in the same cruel fashion.
The cut tires and gas fumes, which conspired to make NASCAR's greatest driver wait 20 long years before tasting the one victory he craved more than any other, gave way Sunday to an unyielding concrete wall.
Dale Earnhardt, the toughest buck to ever take the track, died on the track he owned for 23 years. The soul, the face and the attitude of NASCAR died with him.
Shock, disbelief and grief have befallen the racing world, which no longer can ignore the foolish perils that define its sport.
Drivers always have understood the inherent dangers of the racing lifestyle. No one is immune. Royalty is not excluded.
Fireball Roberts perished in a flaming crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway 37 years ago. The Petty clan lost its fourth-generation heir when young Adam struck the concrete wall during a practice lap at New Hampshire last spring.
Fatal accidents on and off the track have not given NASCAR's elite time to forget their own mortality. Neil Bonnett ... Alan Kulwicki ... Davey Allison ... Rob Moroso ... Kenny Irwin ...
Nothing, however, prepared the NASCAR community for what happened Sunday in the Great American Race.
If there were one man who might be indestructible, it had to be Earnhardt. They didn't call him Ironman for nothing.
How many times had Earnhardt hit the retaining wall and walked away shrugging? How many times had he driven some poor soul who got in his way into the same wall?
"That's racin'," he'd say.
NASCAR can't shrug this loss off - especially in the wake of three deaths in 2000. If Earnhardt can die on the track, if he can refuse to wear safety devices that might have saved his life, then the sport has to react to save itself and its competitors. Safety must be mandatory. Death need not be such a familiar part of racin'.
Earnhardt is the polarizing force that can effect meaningful change. There is never a gray area when it comes to The Intimidator. You either loved him or hated him. Either your Chevy sported a "3" on the bumper in homage or your Ford displayed an impudent Calvin sprinkling the trademark 3 with his dissenting opinion.
Either way, you admired Earnhardt for the unapologetic way he won a record-tying seven Winston Cup titles. Nobody fought harder to win.
And nobody can imagine stock-car racing without the black No. 3 trading paint in every turn. He leaves an impossible void.
Dale Earnhardt is survived by his wife, Teresa, who will inspire tears every time the clip is shown of her final hug and kiss to Dale before he climbed into his Chevy on Sunday.
He is survived by four children, including his son, Dale Jr., whose presence on the NASCAR circuit every week will inspire the ghost of his father.
And Earnhardt is survived by NASCAR, which will roll through the dirge of the 2001 season, with every twist and turn of the tracks from Charlotte to Rockingham to Bristol to Darlington to Talladega and back to Daytona resonating with his absence.
NASCAR president Mike Helton struck the perfect words when he announced the tragic news to the world Sunday evening.
"We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
No replacement can ever be found. The sport will never be - should never be - the same.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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