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Torrents of support stake Big E's claim as greatest

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001

In sports history, the only No. 3 to compare was Babe Ruth.

If this were golf, Richard Petty would be cast as Arnold Palmer, charismatic golden table-setter for his game/business, while Dale Earnhardt became the NASCAR equivalent of Jack Nicklaus, most prodigious of them all.

Since the Sunday death of Earnhardt, on the final turn of the Great American Race, after power-angling to help teammate Michael Waltrip and son Dale Jr. finish 1-2 in the Daytona 500, the pain over the Man in Black has throbbed well beyond the Old South heart of stock car racing, with passions so massive and tearful, a remarkable embracing of a dynamic but controversial and magnetic driver.

Thursday, in his North Carolina homeland, a unique link between athlete and constituency, as well as competitors, was powerfully evident, just a hundred hours after the competitive roar of Earnhardt's black Chevy went terribly silent, as preachers and pals talked of No. 3, a funeral of such high impact it was telecast live on MSNBC, Fox and TBS.

People gasped, swallowing long and deep, in so many locales, not just the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, but in every precinct in every state or republic that had been significantly touched by the crusty, combative, heroic Earnhardt.

Somber, grieving fans gathered at dozens of sites, some media-recorded but many in private. They came to tracks where Earnhardt raced. Thousands dropped by his splendid headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., but also at the garages of Dale's rivals. Leaving flowers, sweet messages and recollections.

How could it not remind us of public outpourings when Princess Diana died? So many people feeling a need to do something, leaving a personal tribute. A darling so suddenly gone. It's a rotten thing to imagine, but how many athletes would generate such a reaction in so many places? In excruciating ways, the world is now better educated on the depth of NASCAR racing and the magnetism of its downed ace.

It wasn't just Dale dying. It's how he went. Reaction would've been huge if disease, a plane crash or street violence had killed Earnhardt. But feelings have been chased to beyond overflowing with No. 3 crashing at the head of the Daytona 500 stretch, as NASCAR's most famous temple shook from the shouts of 200,000 patrons, well aware of No. 3's attachment to the two cars that were first to go vrooming beneath the checkered flag.

It hurts to even imagine what ugly occurrence might compare, maybe with John Elway driving his Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl championship, but No. 7 perishes from a collision at the 3-yard line. Imagine.

Or maybe a Derek Jeter hitting a Yankee Stadium grand slam for an 8-6 win in Game 7 of the World Series, but No. 2 is struck down by a heart attack after rounding third base. Imagine.

Many athletes die before their time, but it's more often a smackup on a highway or in an airplane, maybe an illness or self-destruction. But how many depart this earth while at optimum combat in the mightiest venue of their sport? I have trouble naming any; surely none as noted as Dale Earnhardt.

A script so rare, so piercing.

Emotions for Earnhardt have been wonderfully honorable, except for a moronic few. Sputtering minds have chosen to blame two-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin for triggering the wreck that killed Dale.

Threats were delivered to the home base of a NASCAR driver who did nothing wrong; did no maneuver No. 3 hadn't tried 10,000 times; working well within the rules, written and not, in search of success.

As their automobiles jockeyed into Turn 4, rumbling at 170 mph, there was Marlin-Earnhardt contact, a fender flick that caused Dale to go out of control, slamming into a concrete wall.

Waltrip, speaking with grace and dignity, said Sterling should be not at all blamed. Find me a Daytona 500 driver who disagrees.

But, too often, there are bottom feeders who refuse to understand even what is apparent to all sensible souls. Wonder how many nasty callers left their names and phone numbers. Anonymous is frequently the partner of gutless.

I have seen no professional sports brotherhood quite like NASCAR. As with families, they have disagreements, even fights. Names can be called. But, as with most families, when there is a major problem, the close knit is obvious.

Tony Stewart had a flipping Daytona 500 crackup that, at first glimpse, appeared more harsh than the wall smash of Earnhardt. Bobby Labonte rushed to Stewart's mangled car, checking health. Fearing a concussion, the rival driver asked Tony who was president of the United States. I assume he said Bush, or at least Clinton. Bobby smiled.

Two days from now, Dale's associates will be racing again, at a North Carolina place called Rockingham, including Little E and Waltrip. Show goes on. Races go on.

Hopefully, much has been learned about how to do it more safely, as well as about the people who drive and those who cheer them.

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