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Farewell to legendary driver Earnhardt

(CNN) -- Love him or hate him, Dale Earnhardt's name was in the top tier of every NASCAR fan's list of top drivers. Earnhardt the Intimidator, pushing the black Goodwrench No. 3 car as hard as he could, aiming for the winners circle.

Hating Dale Earnhardt was not a matter of despising the man, or wishing him ill -- it was about rivalry on the race track, backing a Darrell Waltrip or a Bill Elliott while your buddy down the street wore the silver 3 on a black racing jacket and swore that "Earnhardt Rules."

On Thursday, fans of all persuasions joined together outside at Calvary Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, to bid a final farewell to "the man in black," the working man's hero who took stock car racing to the edge and earned the nickname "Intimidator" for his fierce style of driving.

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Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500 on February 18 -- the only major race that eluded the driver for more than two decades until he finally hit the winners circle there in 1998.

Outside his race car, however, Dale Earnhardt was a family man who loved boating and fishing and hunting, a man who revered his father and followed in his footsteps when he started his racing career after dropping out of school at 16.

Something in Dale Earnhardt slipped off onto his own children as well -- three have in some way followed his footsteps into motor sports.

Daughter Kelly drove Late Model Sports Car for a short while before stepping into sports marketing. Son Kerry also drove Late Model cars, and son Dale Jr. was on the track at Daytona when his father died, finishing second in a car owned by his father.

From pink to black and silver

A teen-age Dale Earnhardt first rolled onto the track at Old Concord Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina, behind the wheel of a 1956 Ford Victoria.

The No. K-2 car was painted pink, a far cry from the black and silver car the Intimidator drove from 1984 until his death.

Earnhardt got his love of racing from dad Ralph Earnhardt, a NASCAR Late Model driver who racked up 32 victories on his way to a NASCAR Sportsman Division title in 1956.

Ralph built the engine on that pink car.

Twenty-four-year old Earnhardt had a blue and yellow paint job on his 1975 Dodge when he made his first NASCAR Winston Cup start at the World 600 in Charlotte, a race that say him finish 23rd, 45 laps off the leader, Richard Petty.

And four years later, the blue and yellow covered a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, No. 98, when he won his first race on April Fools Day in Bristol, Tennessee. Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year that year, and another year later, behind the wheel of a blue and yellow Oldsmobile -- No. 2 -- Earnhardt took the first of seven Winston Cup championships.

For more than 20 years, Earnhardt raced the Waltrips and the Elliotts and eventually his own son and Darrell Waltrip's brother Michael, who won that fateful Sunday race -- his first win -- in a car owned by Dale Earnhardt.

An era of racing has ended, and a new one open for the next generation of racers.



RELATED STORIES:
Earnhardt remembered as NASCAR's 'last cowboy'
February 21, 2001
NASCAR: Earnhardt's death unrelated to rules changes
February 19, 2001
Waltrip's win a sad ending to tragic race
February 18, 2001
Dale Earnhardt Career Highlights
February 18, 2001

RELATED SITES:
The Earnhardt Connection -- Dale Earnhardt NASCAR News
NASCAR.com

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