Earnhardt was heart of NASCAR

NASCAR lost more than a seven-time champion on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 18, at Daytona. It lost its identity, its swagger and its personality.

Dale Earnhardt drove stockcar racing into the American mainstream during the past 20 years with his combative style, unapologetic attitude, relentless desire to win and that wicked little grin.

Richard Petty gave NASCAR a hero, but Earnhardt gave this struggling, regional circuit an edge and a reason to watch, because fans either detested or worshiped him. Either way, he got them to respond and was the single most influential race driver this country has ever produced.

He had a nickname (Ironhead), a sidekick (his black No. 3), a calling card (his front bumper) and a penchant for intimidating his competition.

But what this second-generation racer possessed that Yarborough, Allison, Pearson and Petty didn't was a national following that rivaled any rock star. The Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi didn't sell as many T-shirts (combined) as Ironhead did in the '90s. Every other Chevrolet pickup truck carried a No. 3 decal. And the Ford pickups sported a decal of someone taking a leak on that same No. 3.

Earnhardt was big in Des Moines, Spokane and Little Rock. He could galvanize and polarize the same audience and leave them talking about him until the next race.

If 130,000 people showered him with boos at Bristol for spinning out Terry Labonte on the last lap, he could shrug, smile and say he was just trying to "rattle his cage" and get away with it.

Petty said 'aw shucks,' while Earnhardt said damn the torpedos.

He wasn't physically imposing, yet for some strange reason he could beat and bang on people and they took it. A few fought back but, as his victories and championships grew, so did his reputation and he became almost untouchable.

With his dark glasses, black car and bullring aggression, Earnhardt had fellow drivers looking in their mirrors before they disappeared in his. Nobody ever got into people's heads like he did.

He also bridged the old, tough NASCAR with the new wave of politically-correct drivers and had legions of followers from both factions. He only had eyes for camshafts and dirt tracks while growing up in awe of his father, Ralph, and was pretty raw when he hit -- literally -- the NASCAR scene in 1979.

But he gradually grew comfortable with the media and became one of motorsports' best quotes. He seemed to enjoy the fact so many people wanted to hear what he had to say and got the most out of that forum.

Whether he was holding court in a garage, mingling at a corporate party for GM Goodwrench or addressing the media, Earnhardt could captivate an audience.

He was a great story, the backwoods rube who became a multimillionaire by wrestling a 3,500-pound metal monster every Sunday, and it was the combination of his heritage, spirit and success that made him a winner with corporate America.

Nobody had ever transcended Tobacco Road to Wall Street before he did.

As Jeff Gordon shoved Earnhardt out of the headlines from 1995-on, the old war horse suddenly became a popular underdog. His quest to break out of a tie with King Richard for the most Winston Cup crowns continued to drive him towards his 50th birthday.

Before he finally won Daytona in 1998, he was in a prolonged drought and many feared he'd hung around too long. But last year he was again formidable and came home second in the point standings. He was back, in black, and looking fashionable.

He wasn't taking up space and driving around like Darrell Waltrip or Petty in their final years on the track. Earnhardt was still gassing it and mixing it up and throwing his Chevy up and down Daytona's banks when everything got quiet.

There has never been a bigger loss in American racing. Sure, Fireball Roberts and Bill Vukovich were on top of their game when they died, but their sport still hadn't captured the public's attention. And Greg Moore, Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty hadn't been around long enough to forge a legacy.

Dale Earnhardt represented everything that stock car racing used to be and has become. And, as the NASCAR family grieves this week, they all know more than a champion racer died Feb. 18.

Their collective heart stopped beating.