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Even detractors touched 10 years A.D.

Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper suffered fatal injuries on NASCAR tracks in 2000.

None was featured post-mortem on the cover of Time magazine. Their deaths impacted their families but not stock car racing.

Petty was 19, Irwin 30 and Roper 35.

No major changes were made to racetracks to soften blows in crashes like those that contributed to their deaths. No major rules were changed to force drivers to become more safety conscious.

So Dale Earnhardt was able to wear an open-face helmet, have his seat belts precariously attached and shun the use of innovative safety devices when he crashed and died on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 in what would open the biggest chapter on safety in NASCAR history.

Earnhardt died 10 years ago today as America’s most loved and hated racer. Those who despised the seven-time champion nicknamed the Intimidator aren’t likely to admit now that they rooted against the man who drove the fabled black No. 3 Chevy.

Following the darkest day in NASCAR, his moustached face graced the covers of nearly every major publication, including Time.

I wasn’t a fan of Earnhardt because he could be a bully on the track and because he won a lot — 76 races in all.

But, then, I never knew him beyond his public persona and a brief one-on-one interview that lasted closer to three seconds than three minutes during testing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway about a month before he died.

My opinion might have changed had he not died. I was scheduled for a telephone interview with him to discuss his business acumen a few days after the fateful 500. Did you know that Earnhardt owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange?

Petty, Irwin and Roper never won a NASCAR Cup race, let alone seven Cup championships. That remains rarefied air for Earnhardt and Richard Petty, Adam Petty’s grandfather.

The young trio’s dreams were bigger than their accomplishments.

Causes of death? Head injury, just like Earnhardt suffered.

It wasn’t until Earnhardt died that we became familiar with "basilar skull fracture," which can result from the violent whipping of an unrestrained head during a crash.

It wasn’t until Earnhardt died that NASCAR became fanatically committed to an all-out safety blitz.

It wasn’t until Earnhardt died that we became familiar with head-and-neck restraints and energy-absorbing SAFER barriers and that safety became more important than protecting racing machismo.

Today at 9 p.m., the Stratosphere will dim its lights for 10 minutes to honor Earnhardt.

And on the third lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500, the broadcast announcers will go silent — Earnhardt’s latest contribution to the sport — as fans point three fingers skyward.

Testaments to the Dale Earnhardt that I never knew were visible through tears shed in "The Day: Remembering Dale Earnhardt," which will replay on Speed (329) at 7 tonight.

It could be called "When Tough, Grown Men Cry." Earnhardt’s team owner, Richard Childress, and veteran racers Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip and Michael Waltrip struggled for composure — and often failed — as they recounted Earnhardt’s last day.

And this was 10 years after Dale, or A.D. in NASCAR nation.

Why? Because he was a racing icon whose collar was as blue as a multi-millionaire’s could be. And he won. He won a lot.

I, too, shed a tear watching the Speed tribute to Earnhardt. And I never thought I would cry over the Intimidator.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit lvrj.com/motorsports for more news and commentary. Follow Wolf on Twitter: @lvrjwolf.

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