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Mark McCarter: 20 years after Dale Sr.'s death, we're half-dreading, half-drooling over Daytona

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Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Dale Earnhardt, left, and Richard Sturtz celebrate Earnhardt's victory in the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2000. Sturtz won a million dollars on a giveaway promotion. Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

So here we go, last lap of the Busch Clash, only a few hundred yards from the finish line Tuesday night, and there’s Chase Elliott wrecking his buddy Ryan Blaney. Kyle Busch dive-bombs the checkered flag like a vulture on a roadside carcass.

Now, doesn’t that just tick you off?

The NASCAR season hasn’t really officially started, and already Kyle Busch wins a race. And, the reigning Most Popular Driver crashes his BFF.

A new year and it immediately ruffles the traditional Veteran Alabama Racing Fan mentality, which is to despise Kyle Busch and to revere second-generation drivers, especially if their first names end with an E.

If that didn’t get your motor running and get you half-dreading, half-drooling over Sunday’s Daytona 500, and to also check that circled date on your calendar — it’s April 25th at Talladega Superspeedway — what will?

For those of us seduced by the perfume of high-octane fuel, Daytona is indeed a high holiday and a most prestigious event. After all, like two-time Daytona champ Michael Waltrip said, “You don’t get introduced as a two-time Pocono champ.” A Daytona win is a win for life.

This Sunday’s race will begin what Fox Sports has breathlessly told us “might just be the best season ever.”

Guess we should put faith in that, has a TV network ever overhyped its product? I mean, just last week, Jim Nantz was promising us a Super Bowl “for the ages” on CBS. Turns out, it was a small gaffe. He was referencing Tom Brady and meant to say “for the aged.”

Daytona never fully answers the curiosity we carry into each February, but sometimes it does pull back the curtain for a peek as we have, as usual, countless changes among teams and crews.

I’m especially curious how quickly Bubba Wallace can contend with the new Michael Jordan-owned team.

It’ll be interesting to see how Kyle Larson takes advantage of his career mulligan with Hendrick Motorsports.

I’m concerned with so much inexperience in the field, carnage looms. Hopefully, the young drivers will be patient, but tell me the last time you saw a patient 25-year-old?

I keep wondering, in the line of the old song, “who’s gonna fill their shoes?” The sport keeps shedding its household, crossover names — Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and now Jimmie Johnson — so who will inherit their roles? Sometimes the names are forced on us as the heirs apparent, but can you really tell Alex Bowman from Erik Jones from Austin Cendric? Maybe a Daytona win introduces some new name for us, whose face we can place.

Frankly, though, it’s one of the old names that holds a shadow over Daytona this year. Feb. 18 will mark the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal wreck. In some ways, it seems a century ago.

In other ways, though, so many memories are fresh. I remember watching from my press box seat as the No. 3 Chevrolet suddenly halted on the backstretch, a tire blown with less than a half-lap remaining, ceding the 1990 win to Derrike Cope. (Sunday is one for the aged: Cope, at 62 years old, starts in the 32nd position.)

I can remember watching the last laps of the 1998 race from the team pit box, watching the tension on the faces of the crew, then the relief, then the joy, as Earnhardt finally won Daytona on his 20th attempt.

And I was there that fateful day in 2001 when his car slammed into the turn four wall as Michael Waltrip headed to the win, Dale Junior on his bumper.

The next morning, I returned to the track. Outside the wall, fans had posted a makeshift shrine. Flowers. Candles. Pictures. Caps. And, pinned to the chain-link fence, there was an American Kennel Club certificate for a purebred dog.

Master Earnhardt of Daytona was the dog’s registered name.

It will come as no surprise that it was a black Rottweiler.

Veteran sportswriter Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star and The Daily Home. Contact him at markfmccarter@gmail.com.

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