NASCAR & Auto Racing

Earnhardt's last win - 8 autumns ago - remains a moving memory

TALLADEGA, Ala. - It's difficult, still, to come to this place and not think of him.

Dale Earnhardt didn't tip-toe into Talladega. He walked with a swagger everywhere he went, but he came to this 2.66-mile behemoth with even more purpose in his stride.

His team would show up and roll a black No. 3 Chevrolet into inspection almost daring NASCAR officials to challenge something. When inspectors did, his team would pull out the saws and sanders and Bondo and get to work. They did it right there in front of Bill France Jr. and everybody, knowing Earnhardt could take a rounded-off brick on wheels and drive it right through the Talladega traffic.

Earnhardt got his final victory here, eight autumns ago, roaring from hopelessly deep in the pack in the final few laps for a breathtaking win that was his 10th career victory here and the third in his final four tries at this track.

Then, just over four months later, he was gone.

You don't have to look far among race fans to find those who still feel the void left when Earnhardt was killed in February 2001 at Daytona.

One of them is Jarrett Garrison. He's 41 and lives in Charlotte. From the time he was 12 years old, he's kept newspaper clippings about the Kannapolis native who won seven Cup championships.

"I started out with a shoe box," Garrison said as he hefted a large plastic container that now holds most of his collection onto a table. "My mom, Brenda, was the one who got me started doing it and I just sort of never stopped."

Garrison's father, Pat, also had a big role in his son's love for racing. Pat Garrison was a racer himself. In fact, he raced - and sometimes defeated - a young Earnhardt in the early 1970s at the old Metrolina Speedway in Charlotte.

And yes, Jarrett Garrison has the clippings that show it.

"I would see the things Earnhardt did in his career and think about the fact my dad raced against him," the younger Garrison said. "I was proud to know that."

Garrison ran across Earnhardt once in 1988 and Earnhardt immediately thought the man he didn't really know looked familiar. Garrison told Earnhardt who he was and who his father was and Earnhardt immediately made the connection.

Garrison was an Earnhardt fan. Actually, that's not right. Garrison still is an Earnhardt fan. Like a lot of NASCAR fans, he'll tell you that after Earnhardt died it was hard for him to watch a race.

"That year, I think I might have watched three races," Garrison said. "I guess I sort of still followed it, but it was just hard." He pulls for Dale Earnhardt Jr. now, but says he thinks Tony Stewart races more like Earnhardt did.

What Garrison has that a lot of fans don't, though, is stacks and stacks of newspaper stories that help him relive the moments he treasures.

"The first time I went to the Daytona 500 was in 1998," Garrison says as he pulls the clipping from that race out of the pile. Earnhardt won, of course, finally getting a victory that had eluded him his whole career.

"He was just waiting on me," Garrison says.

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