There are Dale Earnhardt flags everywhere you look in the infield camping grounds between Turns Three and Four at Daytona International Speedway. Fans walk by wearing baseball hats with his car's famous No. 3. Under one tent is a cardboard cutout of the eight-time NASCAR series champion.
Five years after his death due a wreck in Turn Four on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the popularity of Dale Earnhardt is so strong that his merchandise trailers around the track are still mobbed.
"I can't explain it -- he was just the best," said Kevin Barr of Orlando, Fla., who has come to the Daytona 500 for the last 10 years. "It's sad -- very sad. We've got (Dale Earnhardt) Junior now, or it would be worse."
Barr stood atop his huge viewing scaffold that displayed two custom-made flags: a black one with "forever" stitched under the No. 3 as well as a red one with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 with "This is still Daletona."
"Most of these people [camping between Turns Three and Four] were here that day," said Ron Plummer, 42, of Deltona, Fla., who has attended the 500 for the last 15 years. "People stayed overnight after they found out and put flowers on the fence. You may have loved him or hated him, but no one wanted to see him go that way."
According to industry estimates, Earnhardt's merchandise is outsold only by Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart. In front of the Daytona USA attraction outside the track is a bronze statue of Earnhardt, and fan after fan stops by for a picture -- 10 were taken in one five-minute span Saturday afternoon.
There is no announced tribute by NASCAR or the track to honor Earnhardt during today's Daytona 500. During Saturday's Busch race, track announcers urged fans to stick three fingers up during the third lap to honor the track's winningest driver. Earnhardt's presence has loomed large this week, with many involved in NASCAR discussing how far the sport has come in five years in safety and popularity.
"The sport is healthy and strong, and it continues with new names and new faces," said Rusty Wallace, who retired last year and is an ESPN commentator. Wallace then mentioned how the sport used to be associated primarily with country music when Earnhardt was alive. "It's like the day Dale died, Dale Jr. came in and all of a sudden it went to acid rock and rock 'n' roll, and then we went to Hollywood. Then we went to marketing the 20-year-olds, and the whole world changed the day he passed on."
The showbiz involved in today's prerace festivities for the Super Bowl of stock car racing includes Bon Jovi, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, Roger Clemens, Jay Leno, James Caan and Olympic snowboard medalists Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler. There will also be Olympic cyclists pedaling around the track prior to the race. Anyone detect a theme? Leno and Caan ("Las Vegas") are on NBC, as is the race, while the network owns broadcast rights to the Olympics.
The best lap in Saturday morning's final Daytona 500 practice was Ken Schrader's 192.686 mph (46.708 seconds), while Martin Truex Jr. was second at 192.505 (46.752). Jamie McMurray (44 laps) and Tony Stewart (43) ran the most laps. . . . Hermie Sadler, 36, younger brother of Elliott by six years, celebrated his first start in the Daytona 500 by, what else? Taking his family to Disney World in nearby Orlando. He even skipped the final practice to do it. . . . Kansas City Chiefs standout tight end Tony Gonzalez was spotted in the Busch garage.