DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The Intimidator. Old Ironhead. Tough and unyielding, a winner on the racetrack and often sarcastic and calculating off of it. Even people who knew nothing about racing knew Dale Earnhardt's craggy, mustachioed face and his reputation as a driver never afraid to bang fenders or shake his fist at a rival. Despite those traits and his rough appearance, or maybe because of them, Earnhardt was a key figure in the explosive growth of NASCAR during the past 20 years from a regional sport into a mainstream America powerhouse. That's what made his death in Sunday's Daytona 500 so shocking. ``This is incredible, just incredible,'' driver Jeremy Mayfield said. ``You figure he'll bounce right back. Your first thought is, 'Hey, he'll probably come back next week at Rockingham and beat us all.'''
The 49-year-old racer was fighting for position when he slammed into the wall on the final turn of the race. He died instantly of head injuries, said Dr. Steve Bohannon, a doctor at Halifax Medical Center. ``There was nothing that could have been done for him,'' Bohannon said.
Earnhardt was the first driver killed in the Daytona 500, which began in 1959. Six drivers have died of injuries from wrecks during practice or qualifying races for the 500. The wreck happened a half-mile from the finish of the NASCAR season-opener, won by Michael Waltrip.
``People like this are not supposed to die. These are heroes,'' said Sean Brong, 46, a fan who went to Halifax Medical Center after the crash, ``He went to his peak and beyond. It was way too short-lived."
Earnhardt was the leader among active Winston Cup drivers with 76 career victories. He also had the most victories, 34, at Daytona International Speedway. Born in Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt raced for the first time in Winston Cup in 1975. He got his first victory at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1979; his last win was in October at Talladega Superspeedway.
His father, Ralph, was one of the pioneers of NASCAR in the 1950s. ``NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I personally have lost a great friend,'' NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said.
Earnhardt died perhaps because of an uncharacteristic decision to let his son and the newest driver on his own team fight it out for the victory while he protected their flank. He crashed on the last turn of the last lap vying for third place at the front of a tight five-car pack. In front of him, Waltrip held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. The elder Earnhardt grazed Sterling Marlin's car, crashed into the wall at the high-banked fourth turn going about 180 mph, and was smacked hard by Ken Schrader. He had to be cut out of his car.
An autopsy completed Monday showed Earnhardt died of blunt force injuries to the head but couldn't determine if a head and neck brace would have saved his life. The autopsy, by Dr. Thomas Parsons, couldn't conclusively say whether Earnhardt's decision to forgo a new protective device called the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) system during Sunday's race contributed to his death, said Dave Byron, a Volusia County spokesman. Only about a half-dozen drivers donned the U-shaped device for the 500; Earnhardt and most of the others shunned it as bulky and uncomfortable.
NASCAR, heeding the concerns of its drivers, has so far declined to make the device mandatory. Officials say additional tests are needed. The death of Earnhardt left NASCAR reeling in the wake of a 2000 season in which three of its young stars were killed in separate accidents. Last May, Adam Petty was killed in Loudon, N.H. Two months later, Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin also was killed at New Hampshire International Speedway. NASCAR truck series driver Tony Roper was killed in October at Texas Motor Speedway.
In addition to his wife and eldest son, Earnhardt's survivors include another son, Kerry, a driver who failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, and daughters Kelly and Taylor.
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