precisely the right moment, Earnhardt rescued NASCAR. When the Cracker Barrel 500 began,
this vast, powerful governing body had been reduced to a damsel in distress, tied up and
bound with the steam locomotive bearing down.
Fans were livid. TV ratings were down. The stands were only
three-quarters full. The term "America's Fastest Growing Sport" had fallen into
Then Earnhardt arrived on the scene in his black-and-silver
Chevrolet steed. He held off Bobby Labonte's Pontiac by two feet, causing thousands of
fans to first crane their necks and then exult.
The Daytona 500 had included only nine lead changes, the
fewest in 35 years. A high-profile race in Las Vegas had been rain-shortened, perpetuating
the malaise. The media center and press box were full of disgruntled scribes.
Earnhardt fired silver bullets at all the sport's detractors
but did not ride off into the sunset, at least not for several hours. He breezed into the
media center, and the first words he said were, "Well, that was a boring race, wasn't
No, Dale. It was a masterpiece, precisely the kind of
spectacle NASCAR needed.
One wonders why, all of a sudden, in the last two turns,
Earnhardt took the high line after holding off Labonte low for eight laps. Was he giving
Labonte one last, fleeting opening? Was he intentionally making the finish not merely
exciting but historic? Could he possibly be that great or that arrogant? Or was he
just riding around with destiny as his co-pilot?
"I was racing for all I could get and all it would
do," Earnhardt said.
No one disputed him. He has made a career out of producing
such drama. He is a folk hero, not merely a celebrity, and the Cracker Barrel 500 was a
vivid example of what folk heroes do.
The Intimidator can be as contrary and ornery as a Corn Belt
tornado, but there he was, trading quips, slapping shoulders, making salty remarks and in
general, winning over a group of cynical journalists with his roguish charm.
The Lone Ranger has often disguised himself as Black Bart.
Meanness and bad often have streamed from his exhaust pipes.
Not at Atlanta Motor Speedway, though. Not in the bright,
clear sunlight of March 12. Not when NASCAR needed him to be a paragon, not of virtue but
He was Churchill during the Battle of Britain, Unitas in
sudden-death overtime, Mays turning his back to the plate to haul in Vic Wertz's World
Earnhardt will be 49 in April. Rational observers consider
him to be in the twilight of his career.
It ain't over 'til Earnhardt says it is.