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How Dale Earnhardt, now 20 years gone, saved NASCAR

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If you were going to make a Mount Rushmore of American badasses, there's only one real question: Who are your other three after Dale Earnhardt?

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Daytona 500, where Earnhardt lost his life in a last-lap wreck. And yet, even now, his ghost hovers over NASCAR. Even if you're not a NASCAR fan, you know his name ... and if you never got to know him when he was wheeling America's raceways, let me give you a little sense of what we all miss.

Earnhardt wasn't just the fastest driver in the garage, with seven championships to his name. He was the coolest, the sharpest, the most respected, the most feared. You don't get the nickname "The Intimidator" because you're a people pleaser.

I'm generally pretty leery of the it-was-better-back-when belief that today's athletes don't match up to historical legends. LeBron James would give Michael Jordan all he could handle in a game of one-on-one. Clayton Kershaw would strike out Babe Ruth in three pitches. Billie Jean King would be lucky to win a single game off Serena Williams.

But Earnhardt? Drop him behind the wheel of one of today's cars, give him a couple practice laps, and he'd be right there at the front of the pack. All due respect to Denny Hamlin, who's won the last two Daytona 500s; Kyle Busch, who's the only active driver with multiple championships; or Jimmie Johnson, who retired with seven rings of his own ... but Earnhardt would've devoured all of them, a smirk on his face all the while.

Every decade got the Earnhardt it needed. In the ‘70s, he was racing dirt tracks, wrecking in every race he couldn’t win, but never giving up. In the ‘80s, he began winning championships, enraging the old-school NASCAR establishment but drawing in waves of new fans. In the ‘90s, he became an icon as well as a branding mastermind. (Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon monetized their “feud,” partnering to create merch to sell to fans on both sides.) He even distanced himself from the Confederate flag decades before NASCAR itself.

As cool as it gets. (Reuters)
As cool as it gets. (Reuters)

He did all this while remaining loyal to his good ol’ boy roots — visitors to his race team HQ often saw Earnhardt himself working the land on a tractor — and he had the respect of everyone in NASCAR, from the garage to the suites.

And he did all this in a time where racing fatalities were almost routine.

Prior to Earnhardt, 27 drivers had died racing at NASCAR's highest level. Three drivers in NASCAR’s national series had died in just nine months before Earnhardt’s death. Think about that for a second. The sport saw drivers literally dying on the track, and met it all with a collective shrug and a resolute well, it’s not going to happen to me.

But then death came for the Intimidator, and that changed everything.

Earnhardt died as a result of a basilar skull fracture. In simplest terms, his car went from 170 mph to zero when it hit the wall. Earnhart’s unrestrained head snapped forward. The tiny bones in his neck fractured. He died instantly.

Within hours, drivers were trying to purchase head restraint systems. Within days, teams were bringing in outside experts to consult on how to reduce the stresses on a driver’s body. And within weeks, NASCAR had begun mandating safety measures that, to date, have kept dozens of drivers alive in wrecks that surely would have killed them otherwise. Every driver has suffered a wreck or two in the last 20 years that would have had a far worse outcome were it not for NASCAR’s many, many safety upgrades.

Force-absorbing walls, protective roll bars inside the cars, seatbelt restraint systems, energy-absorbent foam, stronger seat construction, HANS devices to protect the head and neck — all of these and many more safety improvements combined are why guys like Ryan Newman are still walking among us. Safety in NASCAR is no longer an afterthought built on hope and denial; it’s a priority.

That's Earnhardt's greatest gift to the sport he loved ... that, and the inescapable, effortless cool of a mustachioed dude in mirrored shades leaning against the black-as-a-country-road-at-midnight No. 3, the fastest car you'll ever see.

There's so much more to know about Earnhardt; hell, I wrote an entire book on the man. But in the end, it's simple: everything America wants to believe it is, Dale Earnhardt was.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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