The brokenhearted still wrestle with the pain 10 years later.
It stings in so many different ways: a mother overcome by grief after burying a son. A best friend mustering the strength to rev the engines again because quitting would sully the man's memory. Millions of fans crushed emotionally, waving three fingers in the sky in his honor as the blur of stock cars rumbles into Bristol and Charlotte and Talladega.
Many still can't come to terms with that fateful final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt's famous No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo slid up the track and bounced off a wall at Turn Four.
Michael Waltrip, one of Dale's drivers for DEI Enterprises, had just won the biggest race of the year after going winless in 462 career starts. Waltrip started popping champagne at Victory Lane, sure that Dale wasn't hurt too badly. He waited for his buddy to bounce out of the infield care center, wrap his arms around his neck and give him a big bear hug.
But as the minutes ticked away, the best day of Waltrip's life unraveled into the worst day of his life.
Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR's iconic Man in Black, was dead.
The people, the sport, the dynamics of the industry — nothing has been the same since.
His ghost hovers, mostly because nobody wants to let go. The connection runs much deeper than the 76 races and seven Cup championships he won in a career spanning 27 years.
Earnhardt was NASCAR's rock star.
He had a little bit of that Elvis-cool swagger in him, mixed with some of John Wayne's true grit. He wore Wrangler jeans. Sported a thick 'stache. He went hunting and fishing and drove cars faster than anybody else, and was never afraid to bump another car out of the way if somebody was in his way.
He dropped out of school in ninth grade to pursue a career in racing, just like his daddy. He was simple, straightforward, hardworking, blue-collar. Then he put on the fire suit and became The Intimidator. He could bust you up in a hurry. And then beat you to the finish line.
"Even when you were with him, he was a bigger-than-life guy," said Ray Evernham, now a consultant with Hendrick Motorsports and a crew chief for many years. "He played the persona that he had to be Dale Earnhardt at the racetrack, but off site, he could also be Dale Earnhardt the friend or Dale Earnhardt the farmer.
"If you went farming with him, he'd put his gloves on and throw hay up on the loft. And if we went fishing, he fished. Very competitive person. I've seen and heard stories that you couldn't beat him out of the parking lot. He was fun, tough. He was a guy's guy."
Earnhardt's popularity fueled NASCAR's rise in the 1990s as he tangled with Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and others.
And then, boom. He was gone.
Like friends and family, NASCAR hasn't recovered from the shock to the system. TV ratings have been down for years. Attendance, too. The economic pinch felt by everybody has been a factor, but the truth is that nobody can replace an icon.
"He was the ultimate fan hero," said Bobby Allison, a 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. "There were so many people who loved him or loved to boo him. But they made noise, and that caused more excitement to go on. He was the ultimate class act for our sport."
The sport continues to hold out for a hero.
Jimmie Johnson has won five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, and the worst thing is that not many fans can find the anger to scream or yell. There is much ambivalence.
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.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5533. Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego.