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Intimidator exits life as he lived it

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He was The Intimidator, the Man in Black, and right to the end, Dale Earnhardt was every bit the brusk daredevil who drew millions to his sport.

Earnhardt, the driver people either loved or hated -- but had to watch either way -- died Sunday at the Daytona 500, a race he spiced up with his trademark bumps and bold challenges, unexpected moves and even an obscene gesture to a green rookie.

Some 200,000 fans witnessed Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet flipping during an accident on the last lap of the race. A few hours later came the terrible news. At age 49, possibly the best-known figure in motorsports history was gone.

"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever.

Earnhardt's statistics -- 76 victories, seven Winston Cup championships, that long-awaited victory at the Daytona 500 in 1998.

One of the most-repeated quotes in NASCAR history dealt with what it felt like to try to hold off The Intimidator with one lap remaining: "There is no worse sight than seeing Dale Earnhardt in your rear-view mirror," driver after vanquished driver would repeat over the years. Dressed in a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and sporting a bushy moustache that was once nearly singed off, Earnhardt was an intimidating figure who went after what he wanted. Not just on the speedway, but in the business world, in NASCAR's front office and in the rules meetings, where he sat front-and-center Sunday before his final race.

He wore an open-faced helmet and shunned some of NASCAR's other basic safety innovations. He said the restrictor plates NASCAR used to slow speeds at its fastest tracks were for sissies, and refused to don a new-wave Head And Neck Safety (HANS) brace that has recently been touted as a way to lessen the blow of severe impacts.

Dr. Steve Bohannon said Earnhardt likely died of severe head injuries, particularly to the base of the skull. They were the same type of injuries three drivers died of in NASCAR accidents last year. "I know the full-face helmet wouldn't have made a difference," Bohannon said. "I don't know if the HANS device would have helped. I suspect not." Thus continued the pall that has been cast over NASCAR's world for the last year, although none of the previous deaths will impact the sport itself as strongly as this.

Because Earnhardt was more than mean, tough and sullen. He was a winner who still felt he could challenge the field each and every week. He raced like it Sunday, bumping Sterling Marlin off the lead early in the race, trading paint with rookie Ron Hornaday a few laps later and moving past another rookie, Kurt Busch, then flashing an obscene gesture as he glided by. On one of the passes, he drove onto the edge of the grass. "The grass is just green asphalt to Earnhardt," breathless radio announcer Eli Gold screamed, as he watched the move unfold. Even drivers on other racing circuits were intimidated. In the International Race of Champions on Friday, IRL driver Eddie Cheever nudged Earnhardt aside, and out of contention, to get a piece of the lead. But Earnhardt saved his car and when the race was over, he drove up behind Cheever and spun him out on the infield. They exchanged words, not all of which appeared to be in jest. It was a move Earnhardt never would have thought twice about had he made it, but Cheever was apologetic after the race. "The last thing I need is a feud with Dale Earnhardt," he said. The back-and-forth with Cheever stole the show, and even winner Dale Jarrett had to stop and marvel. "Once again, Dale Earnhardt showed that he's the greatest driver in the world," Jarrett said. "I'm still amazed that he didn't wreck that car." Almost everybody else on this circuit filled with fiercely proud and independent competitors had similar feelings.

The race that may have encapsulated Earnhardt's career came in 1995 at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he turned the high-banked, half-mile oval into his own personal battleground.

Early, Earnhardt was sent to the back of the field by NASCAR officials for knocking Rusty Wallace into a wall. Half the crowd cheered, the others booed. The Intimidator also clashed with Derrike Cope and Lake Speed, leaving the No. 3 car looking like something that belonged in a junkyard. But Earnhardt wasn't through. Charging back into second place in his taped up Chevrolet, he ran into the back of leader Terry Labonte as they came off the final turn. Labonte spun out as Earnhardt took the checkered flag, still the winner but battered and bruised.

There was a gentle side, too, that played up his Southern roots and values, just like the sport he dominated.

An observer this week spoke of watching Earnhardt goad fellow competitors into taking a picture with a sick child at a publicity function, then show concern for a lady who almost fell off a podium. He also began to steady his once-shaky relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son who will take over his mantle much sooner than anyone ever figured. After finally triumphing at the Daytona 500 in 1998, after 19 failures, pit crews, drivers and owners stood atop their cars and applauded wildly. No other driver could command such respect.

"This one tops them all," Earnhardt said after that victory. "It puts the icing on the cake." But the party wasn't close to being over. He won five more races afterward, finished second last year in the Winston Cup point standings and said he felt primed for a run at a record eighth title this year. The quest ended much too early.