In most sports, the legends of the game are put on a pedestal and given a level of status that seemingly makes them untouchable.
But as more time goes by since the legend last competed, it’s almost as if they’re not as appreciated as the sport undergoes major changes and the sport’s athletes improve their performance over time.
That’s certainly not the case in NASCAR, though, as Dale Earnhardt still looms as large as ever, even 20 years removed from his passing.
If you look at the major sports in America today, there are a number of athletes who could stake a claim to being among the sport’s best of all-time.
In NASCAR, that distinction can only go to three men – Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson.
Once you get past those three names on NASCAR’s greatness list, the rest simply don’t stack up.
The debate over who is truly NASCAR’s greatest driver of all-time will always exist, but one title that has only become more cemented in history with time is NASCAR’s most important driver of all-time.
Since February 18, 2001, when the crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 took his life, there has been no doubt that Dale Earnhardt is the most important NASCAR driver of all-time.
No one meant more to the fans of the sport, as evidenced by the fact that fans to this day still fly Earnhardt flags and wear his merchandise at every race.
There are roads, monuments, buildings, and sections of the grandstands at numerous tracks named in his honor.
But beyond the love and admiration he gained from fans, his actual contributions to making NASCAR what it is today are unrivaled.
Earnhardt helped take NASCAR from a sport in which fathers would load their wife and kids into the family car, drive to the race track, unload everyone, take the exhaust pipe off, paint a number on the side of the car and race, to a sport where everyone now flies to tracks on private jets.
He was one of the first athletes, and the first racer, to trademark his signature and image, and revolutionized the merchandise industry that has fueled NASCAR’s growth.
Strictly from a business standpoint, no one had a bigger hand of taking NASCAR from regional sponsors to Fortune 500 companies clamoring to get into the sport than the guy who was an 8th grade drop out but worth over half a billion dollars when he died.
But when the field sees the green flag for the 63rd annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Earnhardt’s greatest impact on the sport will be made clear by the mere presence of Ryan Newman.
At last year’s Daytona 500, there was a wreck on the final lap similar to the one that took Earnhardt from the world.
Here is the final lap of the Daytona 500 in which Ryan Newman's car was flipped at the line.
We will continue to keep you updated on his status as we learn more. pic.twitter.com/qkEwQBpoP0
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 18, 2020
For hours, fans waited with bated breath for news on Newman’s condition, all the while fearing the worst.
Many worried that even if Newman survived, he’d surely be unable to ever race again.
Regardless, two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital with his two daughters by his side, and within a matter of months was back competing at the highest level of motorsports.
Ryan Newman has been treated and released from Halifax Medical Center pic.twitter.com/J0twhGgQm7
— Roush Fenway (@roushfenway) February 19, 2020
The fact that Ryan Newman was able to walk away from that accident, much less to race again in the Daytona 500 on Sunday, is a testament to the incredible safety advancements NASCAR has made since Earnhardt’s passing.
The legend of Dale Earnhardt’s prowess on the race track that has earned him millions of fans to this day, and all of the other ways he contributed to making NASCAR into one of America’s biggest sports, are all small when compared to his impact on the sport’s safety.
Prior to Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR had seen three drivers in its top-three series die on track in a five month period, but it was Earnhardt’s crash that fueled the change NASCAR needed.
Losing a true legend was a heavy price for the sport to pay, and certainly one that no one wishes happened, but there is no doubt that losing Dale Earnhardt has saved countless drivers’ lives over the past two decades.
Drivers today owe a ton to Earnhardt, and should probably thank him every time they sign a new contract worth millions of dollars.
But more than that, they owe The Intimidator their lives.
So when Sunday rolls around and another Daytona 500 champion is crowned, Dale Earnhardt may not be there physically, but he will loom larger over than any other figure in the sport’s history.
And that won’t be changing anytime soon.