Four words can change everything. “We won the lottery!” “Will you marry me?” “We’re having a baby!”
However, it’s the four words that echo in every NASCAR fan’s head that are as altering as they come. They are the four words that, twelve years ago today, made an entire nation fall to their knees and cry their hearts out.
“We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
Dale was before my time; my only memory revolving around him was the ceremony after his death, when a young, solemn Jeff Gordon was giving his testimony about The Intimidator. Any clip I’ve watched or any documentary I’ve taken in could never do him justice.
But, when I see how deeply cut everyone is, I am reduced to tears.
I was born a NASCAR fan, so I was born with Dale in my heart. Nothing can change that.
Everyone has a story about The Intimidator. For Jeff Gordon, it’s the master/grasshopper relationship they shared when nobody believed in him. For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s growing up with a hero as a father. For Michael Waltrip, it’s having a team owner be his most trusted friend. For Richard Childress, it’s every trip to the mountains taken with that down-to-earth legend by his side.
My story isn’t a story. It’s a moment, one that solidified something even greater.
“Look, out on pit road! Every man on every crew has come out to the edge of pit lane to congratulate the man who has dominated everything there is to win in this sport, except this race; until today,” Mike Joy commentated as each team lined up to salute Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona 500 win.
As I see clips of Dale rolling the #3 down pit road and being praised by his peers, his friends, it makes me realize how great his legacy really is, bursting at the sport’s seams. He was more than anyone built him up to be. Years of losing the prestigious race every way possible were forgotten in that moment. An entire nation embraced the champagne shower and the beautiful smiled that graced the winner’s face.
Words cannot fully convey what Dale means to me, to every fan.
He is a legend. He raced like no one else.
He is NASCAR personified.
There can only be one Dale Earnhardt, but there can’t only be one driver of the #3.
On the anniversary of the most tragic day in our sport’s history, you can’t ignore the number. You can’t ignore the repute it radiates. It would be even more heartbreaking for that number to sit on a shelf and gather dust.
I think everyone knows what Dale would basically say if he could comment on the debate of Austin Dillon bringing the #3 back into Cup competition: “Quit your whining and get my number out there, dammit!”
Even though I am young and not as wise as some, I want Dale to live on, let the history he created influence the next generation of racing fanatics.
Besides, if anyone understands The Intimidator, it’s Richard Childress. He knows what he’s doing.
Twelve years ago, we lost The Man. Yet, after all these years, he is not, nor will he ever be, forgotten.
I take pride in being a NASCAR fan because of Dale. He makes me laugh, smile, and cry. And I never saw him race.
There are those four-word phrases that stick with you, like the declaration of a hero’s falling, making you realize that an era has abruptly halted. However, there is one saying that starts that era right where it was cut off.
“3 forever, forever 3.”