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It's easy to be swayed by the mythic nature of Dale Earnhardt's life and death. . . . Polishing the myth eases the pain of losing the man. It distracts from the realization that racing is - always has been - a blood sport. Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in less than nine months, but his death will make the greatest impact.

Maybe better safety equipment - a head restraint, softer walls, more controllable aerodynamics - would have saved Earnhardt. . . . Some - including Earnhardt - have said that tragedy is just part of the game. . . .

On the track, Earnhardt was one of the boldest and seemingly least vulnerable. He was one of the last drivers to wear an old-fashioned open-face helmet. He visibly chafed at new safety regulations, saying they were a disservice to fans who wanted to see races the way he wanted to run them - fearless, tight and just a little dirty.

But if Earnhardt could have seen the reaction to his death - the broken sobbing of an anonymous fan in a parking lot, or the hollow-eyed grief on his own son's face as he walked out of Halifax Medical Center - maybe he would have rethought what fans really want. In Sunday's aftermath, one thing is clear. They didn't want this.

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