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Earnhardt fans are among the most loyal in sports

Zach Bernard's tribute to Dale Earnhardt Sr. is anything but subtle. The tattoo of the iconic red and black No. 3 along with angel wings, a halo and "Dale" in script letters underneath it stretches across his upper right arm.

Bernard was 13 years old when Earnhardt died Feb. 18, 2001. Since then the Columbus, Ohio native has devoured anything he could read on the seven-time Cup champion and Bernard says he "gained more respect for him." He had long wanted to do something to honor Earnhardt, but couldn't decide what -- until inspiration hit a year ago. His mom bought him a shirt that read "Legends Never Die" that included the winged No. 3. Bernard took the shirt with him to Columbus' Skin Deep Tattoo Studio and had the image etched into his skin.

"Dale was my hero," said Bernard. "The things he did behind the scenes away from the racetrack were as impressive, if not more so, than what he accomplished on the tracks."

Ten years following that fatal day in Daytona, Earnhardt's lasting impact remains undeniable. A trip to the track still shows a Dale Sr. merchandise hauler alongside those of today's stars and you don't have to look far to see those familiar colors that have become prevalent among veteran fans and those with a sense of the sports' rich past.

"He is still a hero to us all," said Stephanie Wilson, who started the Facebook page Dale Earnhardt Sr., "The Real King" R.I.P. "Dale was a man who people could relate to, he came up hard and had to work for everything he accomplished. He was and is still the greatest driver that NASCAR has ever seen."

Added fan Annette Danielle: "He was a man's man, [an] awesome NASCAR driver, family man and hunter. He knew the greatest gifts of all and shared those with all of his fans."

In the two years after his death, Earnhardt Sr. ranked among Forbes' list of the top-earning dead celebrities, generating $20 million in 2002 to come in fourth behind Elvis Presley, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and John Lennon, a year later he was seventh at $15 million. The following year he dropped out of the top 10 and hasn't returned, though according to a NASCAR.com report, Earnhardt Sr. remains a moneymaker.

Citing sales figures from the site's store, which were available from 2003-10, Earnhardt never ranked lower than ninth among all drivers and generated total sales in excess of $7.4 million.

David Love, though, has seen a very different trend among serious NASCAR memorabilia collectors when it comes to their tastes for Earnhardt Sr. merchandise.

Love, who owns and operates Love Racing in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, held up an index card with the name and phone number of a customer looking to move his entire Earnhardt collection. The problem, Love said, is that "Senior stuff doesn't sell. He wouldn't even be in my top 20 drivers."

A quick stroll through the store, which opened in 2006, shows no shortage of Earnhardt merchandise. He shows off his inventory, ranging from the typical (die-cast cars, hats, jackets) to the strange (knives and Mac Tools sets engraved with Dale Sr.'s likeness) and the down-right bizarre (an F-16 fighter jet) before pointing to a die-cast car. It features Elvis' photo on the hood, a car released in 2009 and another with John Wayne across the front of the car. They're cars that Earnhardt himself obviously never ran and Love says "[fans] don't want it if he didn't drive it."

You can call it fickle fans, but in truth it may be a dedication for staying true to the legendary driver's exploits. It's that commitment that is on display at Daytona International Speedway, just a short stroll from the Earnhardt statue outside of the Turn 4 ticket office, which depicts Dale Sr. holding the Harley J. Earl Trophy following his one and only Daytona 500 victory in 1998.

On the day of that Daytona win, Earnhardt famously met with six-year-old Make-a-Wish child Wessa Miller, who suffered from the birth defect spina bifida. Miller gave Earnhardt a penny, telling him that it would bring him luck and help him win the race that had eluded him. Before the race, Earnhardt glued the penny to the dash with glue that his crew was using on lug nuts.

Inside of the Daytona 500 Experience museum, which was recently closed to the public this fall, beneath a post of Earnhardt celebrating that first trip to Victory Lane in the 500, sits another of Earnhardt's cars that he drove on the historic track. Scattered across the dash and throughout the interior of the black Chevrolet, are pennies.

It's a small sign of respect that resonates. Those pennies tell a story of fans who continue to have an intimate devotion to upholding Earnhardt's legacy. As fan Michelle Quintana said. "He made memories. He carried NASCAR into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. He was like all of us deep down inside. ... He left too soon."

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