Rodney Combs never was intimidated by Dale Earnhardt.
Although the Lost Creek native raced against "The Intimidator" dozens of times in the 1980s and all the way through the early '90s, Combs never felt the fury of Earnhardt's nickname.
"He'd race you hard, and he respected you when you race back hard," Combs said. "A lot of people were intimidated by that. He was consistently a hard-nosed racer. He raced to win. There's nothing like winning. You don't think second or third. You just think how to win. It's a fix."
Combs, who now lives in Ft. Myers, Fla., and commutes to Charlotte, N.C., on weekends as the primary spotter for Jerry Nadeau, has been in mourning since Earnhardt's death last week in the Daytona 500.
Looking back on racing against Earnhardt, he says it's analogous to playing basketball against Michael Jordan.
"This is the king," Combs said. "This is the greatest NASCAR has seen or ever will see. I knew Dale quite well. (The Earnhardt family) has been in my house."
As part of his job description as a spotter, Combs is supposed to watch the track and look out for wrecks. There's a lot of trust involved between himself and Nadeau.
"We talk to Jerry about what the car's doing and what the temperatures are," Combs said. "I feel what he's feeling, and I know what he's up against. I'm doing every lap with him."
Having said that, Combs also said no blame should be put on anyone for Earnhardt's fatal crash.
"It was just a racing incident," he said. "There was a lot of moving around on the race track."
Combs' son, Rodney Jr., works for Hendrick Motor Sports in Charlotte and is No. 2 on Nadeau's crew.
Although Combs Jr. doesn't see much time at the track -- his job is to stay at the workshop and get all the cars ready -- he had Dale Earnhardt Jr. off to a fast start.
"I kind of helped him when he started racing," Combs Jr. said.
It now will be up to the racing community to help each other in dealing with Earnhardt's death, as the Dura-Lube 400 runs today in Rockingham, N.C., Combs Sr. said.
But the show must go on, because that's exactly how Earnhardt would have wanted.
"The best man will win Rockingham," Combs Sr. said. "That might be Dale Jr., or it might be another driver. He would not want us to miss another race. It'll be sad for all the crews, but they'll have to blank that out and do what they do."
Although the International Motorsports Hall of Fame has said it will wait the standard five years before inducting Earnhardt, Combs Sr. can think of another way to honor him.
"I don't think there's going to be another black No. 3," he said. "That number doesn't need to be run again. It wouldn't be the same without Dale Earnhardt in that car. There will never be another replacement for Dale Earnhardt."
Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.