Intimidation was Earnhardt's trademark
"There was nothing that you didn't expect. Sometimes it meant just putting a move on you that shook your head and said, 'Oh, man. I just got taken to school.' Other times it was just BANG," said Jeff Gordon about Dale Earnhardt on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Gone was the driver who tied Richard Petty's mark of winning seven Winston Cup championships. Gone was the driver whose career earnings topped a record $41 million. Gone was "The Intimidator," sometimes known as "The Man in Black" or "Ironhead," who helped transform NASCAR from a regional sport to a commanding presence on the national landscape. His No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo became the most recognizable vehicle in motor sports.
Earnhardt didn't provide much middle ground. Most fans either loved him or hated him, but there was no questioning his ability behind the wheel.
"Dale was the greatest race-car driver that ever lived," former NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett said. "He could do things with a race car that no one else could. He leaves a big, big void here that will be very hard to fill."
What separated the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Earnhardt from most drivers was his penchant for taking chances. He exhibited no fear on a racetrack and showed open disdain for rules implemented to reduce speeds.
"If you're not a race driver, stay the hell home," Earnhardt said. "Don't come out here and grumble about going too fast."
His 76 victories are seventh all-time and his 281 top-five finishes rank fourth among NASCAR drivers. He finished in the top 10 in Winston Cup year-end points a record 20 times. Following his death, President George W. Bush called Earnhardt "a national icon."
The third of five children, Dale was born on April 29, 1951 in Kannapolis, N.C. While his mother, Martha, tended to the family, his father, Ralph, split time between working in the textile mills and racing his cars. Ralph, who was a well-known engine builder, became something of a local legend as a short-track driver and won the NASCAR Sportsman Division Championship in 1956. Five years later he posted seven top 10 finishes in eight starts in the Winston Cup Series division.
Dale's passion for the sport began at an early age. By his teenage years he was racing Hobby-class cars. Despite protests from his parents, Earnhardt quit school in the ninth grade and began working various jobs while racing on the side.
At 17 he wed Latane Brown -- his first of three marriages -- and became a father for the first time a year later.
The turning point in his life came in 1973, when Ralph suffered a fatal heart attack at 45 while working on a carburetor in the garage. Soon after, Dale Earnhardt dedicated his life to racing. "Following in his footsteps is all I've wanted to do," he said.
Quitting his job at a wheel alignment shop the following year to pursue his dream, he started competing more on the dirt-track circuit. His stock-car racing debut came in 1975, when he placed 22nd in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A star wasn't born yet. Unable to get many rides, he started only eight races over the next three years and earned less than $25,000. But things changed in 1979 when he gained his first NASCAR victory, at Bristol, Tenn. Earnhardt finished the season seventh in points and was voted Rookie of the Year.
He followed that with five victories and the Winston Cup title in 1980 to become the first driver to win top rookie honors and the season championship in successive years.
Then came a switch in owners. Rod Osterlund folded his team midway through the 1981 season, leading Earnhardt to Richard Childress' team for the last 11 races. But Childress wouldn't commit for the following season, and Earnhardt joined Bud Moore's team.
In 1984, Earnhardt and Childress reconnected, starting one of the most amazing runs in auto-racing history. Earnhardt placed fourth in the standings that year, his best finish since 1980. He reclaimed the championship in 1986, surpassing $1 million in earnings for the first time in a season and followed that with an even better year.
Of the 29 races he started in 1987, Earnhardt won 11 and placed in the top five 21 times to accumulate more than $2 million and a second straight Winston Cup title. He was named American Driver of the Year and National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year.
In 1990, he won his fourth Winston Cup title, beating Mark Martin by 26 points. He followed with another Winston Cup title the next year.
After slipping to 12th place in the point standings in 1992, he reeled off another two straight championships to tie Petty's record of seven.
Finally, in 1998, the hex was broken. Snapping a 59-race winless streak, Earnhardt averaged 172.712 miles per hour, the fastest time by a Daytona 500 winner in 11 years.
"I'm here and I've got that goddamn monkey off my back," Earnhardt said in Victory Lane.
By the late 1990s, Earnhardt's estimated annual income from endorsements and memorabilia was $40 million as he accounted for an estimated 40-50 percent of memorabilia sold at NASCAR races. Sports marketers also paid handsomely to have their names associated with Earnhardt, whose signature was trademarked.
In 2000, Earnhardt helped move almost $300 million in merchandise and Forbes magazine ranked his financial empire fifth largest among world athletes. His Dale Earnhardt Inc., which was formed in 1980, was valued at an estimated $100 million.
Career victory No. 76 -- his last -- came in the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., in October 2000. Earnhardt moved from 18th to first in the last five laps.
Four months later he attempted to become the fourth man to win the Daytona 500 as an owner as well as a driver. Entering Turn 4 on the final lap, his car made contact with Sterling Marlin's before it was hit by Ken Schrader's vehicle on the passenger side. Although Earnhardt's car struck the wall head-on at a reported 160 miles per hour, few immediately recognized the accident's severity.
"You figure he'll bounce right back," driver Jeremy Mayfield said. "Your first thought is, 'Hey, he'll probably come back next week at Rockingham and beat us all.' "
There would be no comeback. Earnhardt was pronounced dead less than a half-hour later at nearby Halifax Hospital. Cause of death was listed as a basilar skull fracture.
In the months leading up to his final race, Earnhardt insisted his career was nowhere near the end. "Some people hang on too long just trying to get one last victory," he said. "It will be tough getting out of the car for the last time, but I'll know when to do it."