There are two theories on the death of Dale Earnhardt. The first is that he died "blocking" other cars in an attempt to keep Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the lead of the 2001 Daytona 500. The second is that he was simply driving his race and his car got loose, which happens in NASCAR.
Either way, his death was a tragedy. It was a major loss to NASCAR and its fans. Just imagine what might have happened to the NBA and Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan been lost midway through his title run. Friday marks the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's death. His signature black No. 3 car drifted across the Daytona track and smashed into a wall on the last lap of the race.
"We were in turn three and I saw him get loose and drift," said Rusty Wallace, an ESPN NASCAR analyst and former driver who finished third in that race. "He went right past my bumper. I thought to myself, boy Dale is gonna be mad to wreck this late in the race."
At the time of the crash, no one seemed concerned.
"Like most people, I didn't think much of the wreck," said ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch, a longtime broadcaster and close friend of Earnhardt's.
Punch sat with Earnhardt in his motor coach the day before the race. "Dale was very relaxed, loose and happy," he said.
That was the last time he saw his friend. On Saturday night, Punch was summoned back to ESPN headquarters to offer in-studio analysis of the race. Watching from the studio, he began to realize something was terribly wrong by the behavior of the physicians on the track.
In Daytona, the picture started to become clear.
"I really just thought he was hurt," Wallace said. "But when we got to the hospital, you could tell something was wrong. Then when I found out Dale had died, I just thought, are you kidding me? It was a really sad day, just a horrible day."
Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. -- who finished first and second, respectively -- were driving that afternoon for Dale Earnhardt Inc. In one of his last radio transmissions to his crew, Earnhardt said, "Tell them knuckleheads to stay in line," referring to his son and Waltrip.
"The way I look at is like this," Punch said. "Dale Earnhardt Sr. died because he was trying to help Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Jr. It was the first unselfish thing he did on a racetrack and it ended up costing him his life."
Known as "The Intimidator," Earnhardt was NASCAR's most popular driver. He was a seven-time series champion and he won the 1998 Daytona 500. He was from North Carolina and never allowed success to distance him from his southern roots. Wallace considers him one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.
"When I was competing, he was amazing," Wallace said. "He was the man in black. He wore black pants, black shirt, black boots. Black sunglasses. But he just had an incredible personality. He connected with the fans. His relationship with the NASCAR fan was off the charts. There are a lot of people, old-style NASCAR people, who still miss him. We had a lot of wrecks on the track. But we became great friends. Our families vacationed together."
Added Punch: "He had that take-no-prisoners attitude on the track. He had no friends on the track. When he was coming up behind you, he had two thoughts. If I like you, I'll let you get out of the way. If I don't like you, I'll move you. But, as much as he was a competitor on the track, there was another side to him. There was a soft side to him. He cared about the fans deeply. He cared about the people who worked in his race shop deeply."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. inherited his father's fan base and the pressure of living up to Dale Sr.'s success. The son -- a good driver, but not as good as his father -- is quiet and reserved. Both Punch and Wallace have spoken to Dale Jr. this week. "He's just concentrating on racing, he's just trying to get through this week," Wallace said.
It has been almost impossible to escape the anniversary of Earnhardt's death at Daytona this week.
"It's been one of the topics of conversation that has come up a lot down here," said Northport's Andy Lally, who is racing in his first Daytona 500. "There are still a lot of guys in this garage today that were here that day. It's a celebration of his life and everybody obviously has a heavy heart. We're just trying to celebrate the good
Lally raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona back in 2001. So did Earnhardt. The event is held annually, a week before the Daytona 500. It was during that race that Lally got to meet one of his idols.
"I was a huge fan," Lally said. "At some point everyone hated him and at some point everybody loved him. But whether you loved him or hated him, everyone respected his talent and competitiveness. Just being around him was a pretty cool thing and having the honor of being in the race with him is something I will never forget."
Many of his friends will never forget his humor. Earnhardt was a notorious prankster.
"We were getting ready for the Southern 500, it was during the pre-race introductions, and it was so hot on the track," Wallace said. "I sat in my car and something just smelled awful. Well, Dale, came over and opened up six cans of sardines under my seat. I had to smell that the entire race."
Punch recalled that during many live track side interviews, Earnhardt would reach around Punch's back and turn up the volume on his wireless kit. Or how he would "ding" your rental car with a courtesy car in the hotel parking lot. Earnhardt also took part in many charitable endeavors. His only demand was that no one could know.
"He'd be [mad] that we're still talking about him," Wallace said. "He'd say, 'Move on, things happen in life.' But I don't agree with that. I think you celebrate a man's life. When we lost Dale, it was the shock felt around the world."
Earnhardt's racing legacy is more than just thrilling wins and daring driving. Since his death, NASCAR has implemented numerous safety measures. The head-and-neck restraint system, soft wall technology, stronger cockpits and automatic engine kill switches are just a few.
"On the track, he was a taker," Punch said. "He'd take every inch he could. Off the track he was a giver. And in the end, he gave his life so that this sport would be safer. There are probably four or five drivers today who would not be here if it weren't for the safety innovations that were learned from Dale Earnhardt Sr. That's his legacy."