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EARNHARDT NATION excerpt: Dale Earnhardt's last Daytona days

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EARNHARDT NATION is the story of one of NASCAR's most famous families, from dirt-track racer Ralph to American legend Dale to NASCAR icon Dale Junior. The book, written by Yahoo Sports' Jay Busbee, is the first to trace the entire history of the Earnhardt family, from dirt-track racer Ralph to American legend Dale Sr. to megapopular NASCAR icon Dale Jr. 

In this excerpt: Dale Earnhardt's final days were happy ones for him. He'd strengthened bonds with his family and his team, and all was right in his world. At Daytona International Speedway in early 2001 he reconnected with one old friend and formed instant bonds with a new one.

There are moments

you wish would last forever, and Daytona Beach in midwinter qualifies as one. It’s warm enough to wear a T-shirt, but summer’s hot-wool-blanket humidity hasn’t arrived. In the late afternoon, when the shadows reach the infield at Daytona International Speedway, it’s damn near perfect.

Three days before the 2001 Daytona 500, a couple of old-timers sat on folding chairs in the infield, trading stories of races past like so many of the other campers around them—laughing and drinking beer and talking ahead of Sunday’s race. The chief difference between these campers and the thousands around them: these two would be behind the wheel come Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett were unwinding after that day’s Bud Shootout, a race equivalent to a baseball spring training game but far more competitive. Earnhardt had finished second and Jarrett fourth. The two men had raced against one another for decades, from dirt tracks in Carolina to speedways in Japan. They’d swiped Daytona 500s from each other. They’d captured championships at the other’s expense. Rivalry ran deep; respect ran far deeper. And on this afternoon, they just wanted to catch up.

“We talked about everything,” Jarrett recalled long afterward, “but we talked a lot about safety.”

Jarrett was planning on using a new piece of safety equipment, the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, in Sunday’s race. The U-shaped device, now mandatory, reaches over the driver’s shoulders and attaches to the back of the helmet. The HANS holds a driver’s head and neck immobile in the event of a crash. Combined with the closed-face helmet, it’s a far safer option than the traditional open-face model, which Earnhardt favored. It also restricts a driver’s head movement, sharply reducing peripheral vision.

Earnhardt turned Jarrett’s HANS device over and over in his hands, asking questions all the while. Finally, he asked one that haunts Jarrett to this day.

“Are you afraid of dying?” Earnhardt said.

It wasn’t asked in an accusing fashion, or a mocking one. “Dale was always inquisitive,” Jarrett said, “and this incredible conversation was part of that. He was trying to get my feelings, to understand why I’d want to wear this device.”

Earnhardt preferred freedom of movement that the HANS device did not allow. He adjusted his seat, his belts, his helmet, his wheel, everything he could to give himself the maximum room to move around and make adjustments on the fly—a throwback style dating to his very first days racing in the hills of Carolina.

Jarrett countered that the safety measures were necessary to prevent tragedies, that a time was coming when NASCAR might well force drivers to wear these safety devices.

“I don’t think I can do it,” Earnhardt said, and that was that.

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Terry Bradshaw and Dale Earnhardt
Terry Bradshaw and Dale Earnhardt

The day before

the Daytona 500, Fox Sports brought Terry Bradshaw to Daytona for the short segment with Earnhardt. Bradshaw remains “the face of Fox Sports,” as David Hill puts it, and matching him with Earnhardt was brilliant—a couple country boys who did good.

“He was strong, but he was a teddy bear,” Bradshaw would say of Earnhardt. “He was so frigging nice. I knew absolutely nothing about racing, but he showed me a respect I didn’t feel I deserved.”

Showing someone respect is one thing; going easy on them is another. When Earnhardt got Bradshaw in a pace car to tour the track, he showed no mercy. It takes an awful lot to rattle a four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback—a man who played with some of the toughest men on the planet—but Bradshaw had just met his match. Fifteen years later, Bradshaw could barely contain himself when telling the story.

“We were flying!” Bradshaw shouted. “He’s there describing Turn 1, and I’m going ‘Oh my God . . .’ Then we’re coming around Turn 3, and he says, ‘There’s going to be a big bump,’ and then we’re right up against the wall, and then we come flying down pit lane and burning out in the grass. He’s celebrating like we won the Daytona 500, and I’m wetting my britches!”

Earnhardt and Bradshaw bonded instantly. Like Earnhardt, Bradshaw came from small-town beginnings—in Bradshaw’s case, Shreveport, Louisiana—and both reached the peak of their professions through pure will. Drive recognizes drive.

“You meet a lot of people you don’t connect with, a lot of people you don’t get or don’t get you,” Bradshaw said. “Nobody would have put us together, but we connected somehow.”

“Holy [expletive], how good is this?” then-Fox Sports president David Hill thought at the time. “Terry loves NASCAR. Terry loves Dale. Dale loves Terry. Swagger and excellence. We were predicting great things for these two. We were going to have Terry on NASCAR, we were going to bring Dale in to talk NFL. You could see that these two guys had become best friends instantly. Dale fit in perfectly with what we were doing at Fox.”

Earnhardt and Bradshaw laughed in the evening’s fading light. The next day, the sun would rise on the 2001 Daytona 500.

EARNHARDT NATION is on sale now at bookstores everywhere, or online at AmazonBarnes & Noble and all other booksellers. 

Podcast: EARNHARDT NATION author Jay Busbee discusses his new book:

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.