Earnhardt News
2000 Season

Earnhardt makes like Lone Ranger and saves NASCAR
Monte Dutton

HAMPTON, Ga. (Mar. 13, 2000)
They call him The Intimidator, but on Sunday Dale Earnhardt was the Lone Ranger.

At 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 disfavor.

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 it?"

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 of greatness.

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 Series drive.

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.


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