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Kurt Busch recalls Earnhardt’s last bird

It was one of those seminal moments you recall with incandescent clarity, like when President Kennedy was shot, or when O.J. was cruising down the freeway with his pal Al Cowlings in that white Bronco, the cops in pursuit but keeping their distance. A moment so graphic or so profound — or both — that when people ask what you were doing when it transpired, you remember. As do they.

And yet on That Day, at That Daytona 500, why is it the first image I conjure is of the great Dale Earnhardt reaching his hand out the window and throwing an Intimidator-sized middle finger at a whippersnapper driver from Las Vegas named Kurt Busch?

And am I wrong to think that of all the ways one could choose to remember this man, that he might prefer that one the best?

It’s conceivable, maybe even likely, that on That Day, at That Daytona 500, there were a few more Intimidator-sized middle fingers thrown at other drivers when the TV cameras were following other cars. The incident with Busch happened early in the race; there were lots of laps to run before the last one, when Earnhardt’s car would slide up the track and impact the wall at a critical angle.

But Busch wants to be the one: The last driver the great Dale Earnhardt flipped off in the heat of battle.

When they started asking the other drivers about their remembrances of That Day, Sunday being the 10th anniversary of That Daytona 500, that’s the first thing the whippersnapper driver from Las Vegas recalled, too.

"My ‘Welcome to NASCAR Moment’ was probably the finger out the window from Dale at Daytona," said Busch, who has one Cup Series championship to Earnhardt’s seven. "It was my first Daytona 500, and I got the finger out the window. I thought I was minding my own business in the middle lane, but when it’s Senior, you gotta move over and let him through.

"He was on his way to the front."

Yes, he was. He was always on his way to the front. A million words or more have been written about Dale Earnhardt since That Daytona 500 in an attempt to explain why so many people revere him so, why so many remember what they were doing when It Happened.

But those eight words from Busch probably do it better than most.

He was on his way to the front.

"Just his name and the Earnhardt legacy and Daytona mixed into the same sentence is so powerful," Busch said.

"For him to go 20 years before he won his first race here in 1998, it was amazing to watch. The outpouring of support from all the teams, of course the fans, the other drivers. When he passed away, we lost so much of our leadership in the garage area, how he communicated with NASCAR to develop rules or explain to them how the cars needed to be changed or adjusted.

"The one thing that came from his passing was the safety innovations in our sport, and that has continued with his legacy. We’ve kept so many drivers safe since that point."

It has been 10 years. It is still almost beyond comprehension that It Happened to him.

"That was my first Daytona 500," Busch said. "To have that type of news, to have those type of feelings of ‘What am I getting into?’ We just lost the most iconic individual of our time, other than Richard Petty, and here I am starting my first race. It’s amazing that 10 years have passed since it happened."

I never interviewed Dale Earnhardt one-on-one, don’t have an anecdote to share or surely I would. R-J sports editor Joe Hawk sat with him in the back of a limousine, 11 days after Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 after all those years of trying. The Intimidator was a pussy cat, Joe said. When he learned I was writing this column, it took Hawk all of three seconds to find his and print it out.

A week doesn’t go by that I don’t pull alongside a pickup truck with a gun rack in back, or a black Monte Carlo, or even a Toyota, for cryin’ out loud, sporting one of those decals that says its driver remembers Dale Earnhardt, usually accompanied by a big No. 3, his car number, displayed at a slanted angle that suggests a goodly amount of speed — as if it, too, were headed for the front.

For what it’s worth and for whatever reason, I have yet to see a decal with President Kennedy’s name or the number PT-109 on somebody’s back window.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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