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The Rolex 24 is this weekend. I went to Daytona Beach early a few years because I could rent a condo for a month for less than a motel room for 10 days, and I could hole up and crank out all the advance work back in the days when newspapers ran preseason NASCAR sections. I’d take all the transcripts and notes from the media tour back in the days when there was one of those, too. Then the Rolex 24 moved from the first of February to the end of January, and so there went the feasibility of going to it.

But I was there for the last February of Dale Earnhardt’s life, and I saw it all. The last February, windswept and chilly, was the happiest I ever saw Earnhardt, and I don’t subscribe to the theory that he had some premonition of his death. I think he was happy because he and his son had become closer. They drove together in a yellow Corvette during the Rolex. The greatest driving performance of Earnhardt’s life, in my estimation, was during the International Race of Champions two days before his last.

And I saw a few.

Earnhardt surprised me a lot that February. After I finished interviewing him in the midst of the 24-hour race, he put his hand up. I was mystified. He wanted a high five. He wasn’t a high-five kind of guy. I wasn’t, either, but I high-fived him. He was good at getting his way.

Was that only yesterday or 18 years ago? I remember it as if it more as a progression of yesterdays. Even now, it is as clear and indelible in my mind as yesterday.

I think Earnhardt was satisfied with his life and comfortable with his place in history. Race drivers always have to prove themselves. They’re like gunfighters in the West. There’s always a young hotshot with an itchy trigger finger. He didn’t feel as if he had to prove himself to anybody anymore.

I remember this old B-movie, “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.” It’s a chase movie. When the anti-heroes finally outwit and outrun the cops, they seem to be home free until they run afoul of a freight train randomly crossing the highway.

Larry says to Deke, his mechanic, “Ain’t nothing gonna stop us.”

Deke says, “Sure looks that way.”

Enter the train.

The tragedy of Feb. 18, 2001, was truth that was stranger than any fiction. Everything was going great until the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500, but it’s the whole month I always think of this time of year.