Dale Earnhardt Didn't Break His Final Promise the Day He Died at the Daytona 500

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2011

Dale Earnhardt left us far too soon.
Dale Earnhardt left us far too soon.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

I'll never forget those prophetic words. There he was, 10 years ago today, relaxing in the pits and staring into the camera prior to the start of the Daytona 500.

"You're gonna see something you probably have never seen on Fox," Dale Earnhardt promised in almost a teasing sort of way.

Was "The Intimidator" going to win his second Daytona 500? Was his son, who had won two races in his rookie Winston Cup season the year before, join his father as a Daytona 500 champion?

Or maybe the "Man in Black" had something else in mind. We'll never know.

But one thing is for sure: Earnhardt delivered on his promise in an eerie, almost prophetic manner. We really did wind up seeing something we'd never seen before in modern-day NASCAR racing: the death of the sport's biggest star at the track that he both loved and hated with a passion, and perishing in a manner that no one could ever have anticipated.

Not old Iron Head.

Yet, sadly, it wound up being both a prophecy and prediction that indeed came true.

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The man who virtually everyone thought was tougher than nails, who conveyed an image akin to Superman—practically able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—ultimately proved to be just as fallible and human as you and me.

In a wreck that, by normal NASCAR standards was just one of those so-called racing deals, Earnhardt ricocheted and hit the Turn 4 wall at Daytona International Speedway head-on after being clipped from behind by Sterling Marlin.

We'd seen literally dozens of similar wrecks over years prior, and 99.9 percent of the time the driver who hit the wall either walked away or suffered only minor injuries at best.

Not this time. Not Earnhardt.

One hour after the driver of the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet was pulled from behind the wheel of his crumpled car, NASCAR president Mike Helton, holding back tears, somberly conveyed the news that would stun a nation almost as much as when another icon, Elvis Presley, died 24 years earlier.

"We've lost Dale Earnhardt," Helton said in a voice that both shook and clutched, with words that were just so hard to get out.

In the ensuing days, countless individuals—race fans and non-race fans alike—paid tribute to Earnhardt the icon, the legendary race car driver, the husband and father, the most intimidating figure in a firesuit and, in its most simple and basic form, the good old boy from Kannapolis, NC who transformed a sport into a national phenomenon.

Earnhardt made going in circles cool. He made pushing other cars out of his way with his so-called "chrome horn" a thing of beauty and wonder…well, maybe not to the victim of his pushing wrath, but certainly to everyone one else who was witness to his inimitable form of road rage on a racetrack.

And who can forget the heavy and bushy black mustache, one that you'd swear would turn up in a smirky or mischievous curl like the old cartoon villain Snidely Whiplash, every time he did the kind of thing his fans loved and his detractors absolutely hated about him.

But whether you loved or hated him, one thing was universal among race fans, fellow drivers and the like: He was respected by all.

Earnhardt was everything that was good and bad about NASCAR. He was the best driver behind the wheel, a seven-time champion, just like Richard Petty.

He helped bring the sport out of his regional Southeast roots and turn it into a multi-billion dollar enterprise that stretched from the Atlantic to Pacific. He also was its most despised characters, almost like a cowboy who wore a villainous black hat—only Earnhardt's haberdashery choice was a black helmet that belied his intimidating persona.

We celebrate the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's death today. But really, what is there to celebrate? If I've heard one reporter use "celebrate" in recent days to commemorate today, I've heard a couple dozen at least do the same.

The truth is, there's nothing to celebrate. How can you rejoice and embrace—the typical definitions of the word "celebrate"—the death of anyone, be it Dale Earnhardt or John Doe?

Immediately after Helton told the world that Earnhardt had left us, many people began to claim he died in vain, a victim of a sport that is admittedly and knowingly very dangerous every time that green flag drops, yet a death that potentially could have and should have been avoided.

That may be true, but so is something else.

If nothing else, Dale Earnhardt died for a purpose: to show that NASCAR was still practically in the Dark Ages, embarrassingly trailing behind other forms of motorsports when it came to driver safety.

In less than a year before Earnhardt's passing, the sport saw three other drivers perish behind the wheel: Craftsman Truck Series driver Tony Roper, promising Winston Cup up-and-comer Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty, the son of Kyle Petty and grandson of NASCAR's fabled King, Richard Petty.

So sad and such a shame was the reaction of many to those deaths, but it was Earnhardt's fatal crash that finally got NASCAR moving—in what would become virtually at breakneck speed—to not just fix the safety shortcomings, but to become the leader in all forms of motorsports at protecting drivers and fans everywhere.

Improvements such as the HANS head and neck restraint device, the SAFER Barrier impact-sustaining "soft wall," the oddly-nicknamed "Car of Tomorrow," stronger crush zones in all four corners of the race car of today, and the "black box" data collection system that measures force and impact of wrecks.

It's due to those and other safety innovations that we have not seen another NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series driver perish on a racetrack in the 10 years since Earnhardt was the last to suffer such a tragic fate.

Is NASCAR totally infallible, so advanced in safety terms that no one ever will die again in an on-track incident? Only a fool would think that.

But let's look back at some of the things that Earnhardt's death—and the ensuing safety enhancements to the sport—has done:

  • Michael McDowell would likely never survived the horrendous barrel roll he had at Texas Motor Speedway, where he flipped end over end nearly a dozen times, only to walk away. 
  • Jeff Gordon would likely have been severely injured in his head-on wreck into the inside retaining wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a few years back, an incident that Gordon immediately called "the hardest hit I've ever had in a race car."
  • Carl Edwards would not have been able to walk away from his frightening airborne wreck at Talladega a few years back, one that jeopardized both his own safety, but also the safety of those in the stands—including close to a dozen fans who indeed did suffer minor injuries from flying debris.
  • All the frightening end-over-end flips that drivers like Ryan Newman (at least twice), Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano have endured in recent years, only to again walk away with nothing more than a rung bell and maybe a few minor bruises.

Earnhardt was a man's man, a ladies' heartthrob, and the face of a sport that unquestionably took NASCAR from a backwoods enterprise to the nation's second-most popular form of sporting entertainment.

And while the sport has lost some of its luster and popularity in recent years due to the tough economic times, Earnhardt left the sport much, much better than when he came into it nearly a quarter-century before his tragic passing.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of his death—not celebrate, but definitely commemorate— time has flown by so quickly. It seems as if just yesterday Earnhardt was making his pre-race prediction to FOX, when in reality, it was over 3,650 days ago that he uttered those unforgettable words.

Yes, Dale, we did see something we never saw before on FOX. Just like you did so many countless times en route to victory lane, you put on one hell of a show, one we'll never forget but for all the wrong, not right, reasons.

I remember the first column I ever wrote for ESPN.com was about Earnhardt's death. I had been hired just a few days earlier. What a way to break in the beat with a new employer.

In that column, I repeated the same phrase several times: "It wasn't supposed to end this way."

No, Earnhardt's demise wasn't supposed to end that way. He was supposed to race for a few more years, maybe even go for a record-breaking eighth Cup championship. He was supposed to shepherd Dale Jr.'s career and witness his transformation into a bonafide superstar (there's no doubt in my mind that Junior would have won at least a couple Cup championships if Senior was still around).

The elder Earnhardt was supposed to stick around for at least another couple decades to dote on his grandbabies, both those that had already been born before that fateful day in Daytona, and those that would come afterward.

Yet at the same time, Earnhardt left us with so much to remember him by, including all the wins, championships, memorable moments and most importantly, the man himself.

It's no wonder that today, 10 years later, he still remains as popular as many of the sport's current stars, the same stars who grew up idolizing Earnhardt and who hoped to one day to emulate him on the racetrack.

Fans still buy millions of dollars in merchandise emblazoned with his likeness or his No. 3. They're still not willing to let him and his memory go. Rather, they'll never forget, keeping him alive in their hearts for many more years and decades to come.

As Earnhardt predicted, we did wind up seeing something we'd never seen before—and something we hope we never, ever see again.

It was ultimately the prophecy and legacy of perhaps the greatest driver NASCAR has ever seen or ever will see again.