20 years ago today, February 18th at age 49, Dale Earnhardt died in a last lap crash in the Daytona 500. NASCAR has had many different eras separated by cars, safety advancements and point systems. I would attest that Dale Earnhardt was the greatest driver of “The Common Chassis Era”. This is from 1981 to 2006. Dale won his first championship in 1980, the last year NASCAR used actual cars straight from the manufacture. In 1981 NASCAR mandated a common chassis and wheel base that the teams would build themselves with sheet metal panels from the car manufactures. During this era Earnhardt went from ‘One Tough Customer’ to ‘The Intimidator’ all while becoming NASCAR’s most controversial driver ever. He was either loved or hated. Coming from the clay tracks of the Carolina’s, getting parts and tires on loan during the week meant a good finish on the weekend was an imperative. The competition was cut throat and vicious. It was in this crucible that the singularly focused Earnhardt formed his racing demeanor and skill. NASCAR writer Ed Hinton recalled a conversation with Dale about his early days. His father died in 1973 and after that, Dale was on his own, runnin' dirt for grocery money. "I'd borrow money on 90-day notes from the bank just to race and try to pay it back the next week. Family [the second one, with Dale Jr. and daughter Kelley and second wife Brenda] didn't have groceries, and my wife would stand in the doorway with them kids and cry when I'd back out of the driveway haulin' that ol' dirt car. "We prob'ly ought to have been on welfare. People kept tellin' me, 'Boy, you better git you a real job and quit that ol' racin'." One night at Cherokee Speedway in South Carolina, third place paid enough for grocery money, and fourth place didn't. "So ol' Stick Elliott's runnin' third and I'm fourth, and I ease on up behind him and hook his back bumper and turn him around just as pretty as you please. He spins out and I go on and finish third. Got back in the pits, getting out of the car, somebody come runnin', told me Tommy [one of Elliott's crewmen] was comin' with a pistol. "I took off runnin' out of the pits, ran across the track, jumped over the fence and ran off. Next Friday night at the drivers meetin', I'm standing there and here comes ol' Stick right up beside me and here come his boys with him, and I'm thinkin', 'Ohhhhhhhh, hell . . .' "And Stick turns to me and grins and he says, 'You know what, boy? You just might make a driver yet.'" "No, sir. All these people [other drivers] screamin', cryin', hollerin' about me, hell, they ain't ever seen the kind of hard racin' I've had to do in my lifetime, just to survive." Dale always remembered how hard he had it coming up. Early in his Cup career he had great success. Almost overnight Dale had money, he had made it. Ed Hinton recalled a truck ride with Dale. Riding in a four-wheel-drive truck through the mud on his sprawling property and down onto a dirt road, winding into the woods, and in a clearing stand four or five hardscrabble farmers, his neighbors. The land all around them is washed and rutted with the recent North C'lina floods, and the men have those blank looks on their faces farmers get when their crops are devastated and they are distraught with those hollow looks. "Stay in the truck, Hinton." He wants to talk with them quietly. He doesn't want to embarrass them, doesn't want them to think I hear the conversation. But I hear snippets. Their crops have been washed away. "Y'all be ready to plant when I get that seed to you," he says. They mumble some sort of protests. "Don't worry about it!" he growls. "Just don't ask no questions. Just y'all have them damn tractors ready to roll when that seed gets here." Later, I will learn that the seed he sends them, at his expense, is measured in tons of tons. Ed Hinton recalls another truck ride with Dale. Four-wheel-drive again, another country highway, 70 mph at least, whoom! Hard right turn onto a rutted dirt road. "Earnhardt, what the -- " "Gotta go see Schrader, man." Sometime in the '80s, and Kenny Schrader is struggling up into NASCAR almost by his fingernails, off the hard-bitten dirt tracks of Missouri, and the truck pulls up by a mobile home sitting out in a field in North C'lina with several old beat-up dirt-track cars occupying what passes for a yard. Earnhardt sits in a folding chair and just hangs, letting the struggling driver know Earnhardt is there if he is needed. Earnhardt always helps the strugglers. Soon he'll give an unknown California vagabond named Ernie Irvan a car and enough money to outfit it for his first Winston Cup race. Earnhardt never lets a struggler fall by the wayside. Earnhardt came up too hard himself. He has never forgotten. And he will never forget -- right up until the day he dies, on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, he will never forget. Even as he dies instantly against the turn 4 wall, another driver, up ahead, Michael Waltrip, a hard-luck guy all his life, suddenly with a break, suddenly in a Dale Earnhardt-owned race car, the first great ride of his career, is taking the checkered flag. For me, in that black #3 car, Earnhardt was the real deal. He earned my fanship because every Sunday I knew he would be on the track, driving his ass off, singularly focused on winning. If not winning then scratching out the best finish he could for the long game of the points race. The Man in Black was infinitely talented, hard charging and sometimes a rough riding ruthless competitor. He could be a surgeon with a scalpel or an axe murderer. He did things on the race track no other driver could or would. His attitude at any given moment showed through his car. It was an extension of him. At my work, more often than not, Earnhardt would back up my racing sh!t-talk during the week. Monday mornings could be a lot of fun.