Dale Earnhardt, the heart of NASCAR auto racing, is dead.

Almost a week later, I still can’t believe it. The shock will not go away.

We’ll never again have the privilege of watching Earnhardt’s black No. 3 car speed around tracks at 190 miles per hour. We’ll never again have the privilege of staring awestruck as Earnhardt, in his Chevy Goodwrench Monte Carlo, takes control of a race with an aggressiveness not witnessed before him and not to be witnessed after him. We’ll never again have the privilege of seeing Earnhardt with his push-broom moustache drive up through Victory Lane sporting his signature black shades.

We’ll never again have the privilege of watching Earnhardt, driver and competitor, shake hands with friends like Richard Childress or congratulate opponents like Jeff Gordon. We’ll never again have the privilege of seeing Earnhardt, owner and teammate, ensure that teammate Michael Waltrip will win his first career race, the 2001 Daytona 500. We’ll never again have the privilege of tearing up as Earnhardt the husband and the father hugs his wife,Teresa, kisses his daughter, Taylor and embraces his son, Dale Jr.

Earnhardt was the best driver of his era, probably in history. He won his first Winston Cup in 1980, becoming the first driver to win rookie of the year and the Winston Cup in back-to-back years. He won seven Winston Cup titles, tied with Richard Petty for the most in the circuit’s history. He finished in the top 10 in Winston Cup point standings 20 out of his 22 full seasons. He won the Gatorade 125 at Daytona International Speedway every year during the 1990s. He won the IROC Championship in 1990, 1995 and 1999. He set a modern-era Winston Cup record by finishing 53 consecutive races from 1997 to 1998. He earned over $41 million dollars during his 26-year career. He won the 1998 Daytona 500 in his 20th attempt. He started 676 races and failed to finish only 95 times.

He defined supremacy.

“The Intimidator” was the only reason many, including myself, tuned in to watch the Brickyard 400 or to read the racing blurbs in the sports section. Earnhardt was like the Babe Ruth of baseball, the Michael Jordon of basketball, the Wayne Gretzky of hockey. Fans followed him based on reputation, image and pure skill. His fearlessness, his aggressiveness and his flare on the racetrack that complemented his unselfishness, his compassion and his humor off the racetrack made him the consummate hero.

I remember turning on the Daytona 500 when I was in middle school and hearing Earnhardt’s name, then reading about his achievements in the paper. I knew very little about car racing at the time. I saw his picture, watched him tear up corners, learned that he had yet to win NASCAR’s biggest race and rooted for him ever since.

My father used to question why I would ever want to watch “a bunch of cars going around in circles.”

But I didn’t want to watch “a bunch of cars going around in circles” – just Dale Earnhardt’s.

He had a charisma and a character that separated him from other drivers, elevating him to an elite level that few athletes and sports figures attain. His menacing demeanor in competition and his bright smile with friends and family made him more than a racer. He was a champion and a role model, one that many children and young adults, aspiring drivers or not, had the privilege to look up to.

Earnhardt was not only a staple of the nation’s most attended and fastest growing sport, but the most talented driver and the one of the finest people ever to strap into a racecar.

And we had the privilege to see him.

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