Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the son who has struggled mightily during the past few seasons — has been voted the most popular driver in the sport for eight consecutive years. He hasn't won a Cup race in his past 93 starts. His last appearance in the end-of-the-season Chase for the Sprint Cup was in 2008, his first year with Hendrick Motorsports.
But he's kin, and he's as close as they are going to get to the Intimidator these days.
"That's the fans projecting their expectations on him," Kyle Petty said of Earnhardt's popularity. They want him to be Dale Earnhardt Sr. They want him to win races. They want him to win championships.
"You have to feel bad for him. It's like having 4 or 5 million stage moms. It may not be exactly what Dale Junior wants, but it's what his parents want. It's a bad place. I applaud him for getting out of bed some mornings just to come to the racetrack."
Petty understands the burden of a famous last name, having followed his father, Richard Petty, into the business, and struggling to find his way for years.
The sport itself bears the scars of Earnhardt's death. Viewership on ESPN and ABC dropped 18 percent last year during the Chase — NASCAR's 10-race, 12-driver playoff format to crown a champion. Attendance has dropped about 13 percent during the past two years. Sponsorships are down, too, with DuPont, Texaco and Old Spice, among others, dropping out or scaling back their investments.
Earnhardt wouldn't have been the cure-all for everything that ails NASCAR. But his presence — likely as a team owner at this point in his life — certainly would have fueled more passion in the sport.
NASCAR will undoubtedly commemorate Earnhardt's memory with reverence at Daytona during the next seven days. The 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death is Friday, two days before NASCAR kicks off its 2011 season in its version of the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.
It says a lot about a man when even in death, he will be the biggest star at Daytona.
His presence is all over — including the cars and the tracks. The sport is much safer now. Spurred by Earnhardt's death — and three others preceding his accident — NASCAR officials moved quickly to implement safety measures.
Only seven drivers wore head-and-neck-support devices the day Earnhardt died.
Earnhardt wasn't one of them. Robert Hubbard, inventor of the HANS, the restraining device, was in Daytona a few days before the race, pitching his product.
He was working Jeff Burton, whose garage was next to Earnhardt's spot. Burton was open to using the HANS. Earnhardt was not.
Hubbard looked over and saw Earnhardt but did not approach him because he had been told that Earnhardt had no interest in using the HANS device.
"It was unfortunate," Hubbard said recently. "But if somebody doesn't want to hear what you want to tell them, there's no sense shoving it down their throat."
By Oct. 18, 2001 — nine months after Earnhardt's death — those devices were mandatory for drivers in all three of NASCAR's racing series. They are an important safeguard against basilar skull fractures, the very thing that killed Earnhardt. Racetracks started building soft-wall technology to displace the force of cars crashing into walls. Drivers eased into seats with increased head protection.
It took the deaths of NASCAR drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Earnhardt within an 18-month period to accelerate the change. All of them died of basilar skull fractures, the type of injury the HANS device can prevent by limiting the movement of the head relative to the torso during impact.
Coupled with the other innovations, the sports has become much safer. Not a single driver in any of the three NASCAR circuits has been killed since Earnhardt's death.
"Dale Earnhardt was Superman," Jim Downing, who collaborated with Hubbard on the HANS, said at the time. "Well, the fact that Superman was killed made all the rest realize they could get killed, too."
Superman was not invincible.
He died far too young, at age 49, driving fast and hard and blocking traffic for his best friend and his son.
The myth roars on, bigger than ever.
Dale Earnhardt might have died that day, but the truth is, he never really has left the sport.
It will be thoroughly documented during the next few days, in all the stories, the tears and the sea of hands pointing three fingers in the sky.
And once again, the engines will rumble at Daytona, buffered by the melancholy soundtrack for a dear lost friend.
email@example.com or 407-420-5533. Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego.
Dale Earnhardt's legacy stays strong a decade after death
Dale Earnhardt at the 1981 Talladega 500. (RACING PHOTO ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)