February 18, 2001. The 43rd Running of the Dayton 500 would be one of the greatest races in NASCAR. But that 18th day in February would be tarnished with one of the most unexpected and saddest tragedies in motorsport.
150,000 people had packed themselves into Daytona International Speedway. The race was anticipated to be the best Daytona 500 to date. Perfect weather, paired with a new form of restrictor plate to keep the competition close. FOX and NASCAR had pulled out all the stops to cover the race on television as 17 million watched from afar.
I think it’s going to be some exiting racing. You’re going to see probably something you’ve never seen.” - Dale Earnhardt
Speaking of ‘The Intimidator’ Dale Earnhardt, 3 years prior, he had set up a new race team, D.E.I (Dale Earnhardt Incorporated). In 2001 the team would consist of his son Dale Earnhardt Jr, Steve Park (1997 Busch Series Rookie of the Year) and Michael Waltrip, who after 462 races, didn’t have a single win. Waltrip would race in his older brother’s shadow, but Earnhardt saw something in him, hiring him for the 2001 season. In addition, racing with his son had sparked a new flame in Earnhardt, and he seemed to take more appreciation in Dale Jr’s accomplishments than his own. Dale Earnhardt was a 7-time NASCAR champion, tying him with ‘The King’ Richard Petty. He was the best restrictor plate racer in history, dominant at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. He had famously conquered the 500 in 1998. He was the most influential driver in NASCAR history, yet he now had a different shine, and continued to impress those who rooted and booed for him.
As teams made final preparations and drivers brought their stock cars to life, Darrel Waltrip summarised what it’s like to win the Great American Race.
Some dreams turn into nightmares… But there’s no greater feeling, no greater accomplishment than driving your car through those pearly gates, into that holy ground.” - Darrell Waltrip
How eerie those words sound now.
‘Awesome Bill from Dawsonville’ Elliot lead the 43 determined drivers and their horsepower hungry chariots as the green flag waved.
Straight away it became obvious the afternoon would be filled with close door to door racing at 180mph, only judged by the air around them and the courage of the drivers. It didn’t take long for there to be multiple changes for the lead as drivers went up and down the order. Dale Earnhardt spectacularly pushed his way forward, almost on the grass to take the lead on Lap 3. Dale Jr would soon join his father near the front of the pack. The first caution would come when Jeff Purvis slid into the wall in the no. 51 Phoenix Racing Dodge. This would give everyone a chance to pit for fuel and new tyres. For the next 105 laps, fans were treated to more close racing and constant lead changes. It would only be a matter of time before the drivers would find the limit. Dale Jarret would drive blind and save his skin as others flew off into the pit lane, almost causing a collision. On lap 157, Kurt Busch would be punted into the wall when he moved in front of Joe Nemechek. He would then slide dramatically into the infield, bringing out the caution and bunching up the pack once more. Soon after, on Lap 173, ‘The Big One’.
Contact between Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ward Burton began a chain reaction down the backstraight. 18 cars were collected in the mess. Tony Stewart had flown and rolled multiple times in the crash. The back straightaway had become a wrecker’s yard, and the race would be red flagged to clean up the pile of futile steel and rubber. Everyone came out of the wreck okay.
The race would restart on lap 180. Dale Earnhardt would lead the field to green. Sterling Marlin would take the lead, until Michael Waltrip regained the lead again in his no. 15 D.E.I car. With 5 laps to go, Michael Waltrip would lead, with teammate Dale Jr right behind. In third was Dale Earnhardt, but Earnhardt would be playing chess. Something probably never seen before. Rather than do anything to win, Dale Earnhardt, ‘The Intimidator’ would be keeping the rest of the pack behind, protecting his team. Coming out of Turn 4, the two D.E.I cars would race to the chequered flag as a crash faded the competition away.
It was just Waltrip and Dale Jr racing to the chequered flag.
In the commentary booth, Darrell Waltrip, 3-time NASCAR Champion and 1989 Daytona 500 winner, would call the final lap, rooting for his younger brother Michael.
Keep it low Mikey, don’t let them under you”
After 463 races, Michael Waltrip had not only grabbed his first NASCAR Cup Series win, but the greatest of them all, the Daytona 500. You couldn’t script this if you tried. Nor would you want to write the tragedy that came next.
NASCAR President Mike Helton stands in the media centre, surrounded by microphones, journalists, and camera crews. His serious eyes and moustache hide any emotion, but not for long. Flash bulbs are going off as he sways slightly from side to side.
This is undoubtedly one of the hardest announcements I’ve ever had to make. But after the accident at Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” - Mike Helton (NASCAR President)
Battling with Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader as his team raced ahead to the chequered flag, Dale Earnhardt crashed head on into the Turn 4 wall. He suffered a basilar skull fracture, sustained from blunt force trauma, killing him instantly. Regrettably, the same injury that had caused the deaths of Adam Petty, Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Blaze Alexander. Life can give plenty, but often it takes more.
But there is some solace. The last thing Earnhardt would have seen would be Michael Waltrip, a driver everyone but him had doubted and lost faith in, lead his son to the finish line of a race that had alluded Earnhardt for 20 years, despite being the best racer on these types of circuits. He had nothing more to accomplish. We would never see his performance and awe decline. That’s what makes him a legend. I think Dale Earnhardt would have been content with that.
However, NASCAR and its fans would need time to heal. This would come in a matter of stages.
The following race at Rockingham, Steve Park, the third driver for D.E.I would take victory, their second straight win of the season. Two from two. Park would wave a number 3 Earnhardt cap out the window of his car on his drive to victory lane.
Richard Childress would bring in a young Kevin Harvick to drive the new no. 29 car to fill in the vacancy left by Earnhardt. In almost a carbon copy finish to how Earnhardt had won the race a year prior, Harvick would claim victory in only his third start. Similarly, to Steve Park’s celebration, Harvick would hold three fingers out of the cockpit, saluting Dale Earnhardt. The fans did the same, and it has become a tradition to do so, especially on lap 3 of each year's Daytona 500. He also paid tribute to Alan Kulwicki, by driving a lap in reverse so he could more easily wave to the fans, a signature celebration used by Kulwicki who also was taken to soon.
When NASCAR returned to Daytona for the July race, Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip would finish as they did in that year’s 500. Yet it would be Dale Jr who would take victory, Waltrip second, at the track that took ‘The Intimidator’ only months prior. D.E.I would dominate at superspeedway tracks for three years, just like Earnhardt had done his entire career.
In 2003, Waltrip would win the Daytona 500 again, and a year later, Dale Jr would claim victory in NASCAR’s most prestigious race. This was enough to heal the wounds of many fans.
So thankful, so thankful for Dale Earnhardt. He made [Daytona] even more special to me... And I know his heart, he was about this place. And I know he's smiling now" - Michael Waltrip after winning the 2003 Daytona 500.
In the wake of the tragedy of February 18 2001, NASCAR would implement a number of safety features including a much safer and stronger spec car, called the ‘Car of Tomorrow’, the HANS device (Head and Neck restraint) and the S.A.F.E.R barrier, to soften impacts.
As a race, the first 199 laps of the 2001 Daytona 500 were spectacular, a race everyone had anticipated and wanted. However, lap 200 would be the one to tear NASCAR apart. The triumph of Michael Waltrip and D.E.I would be made futile as one of motorsports legends passed on in the most unexpected of ways. We watch motorsport because of its unpredictability, for its ‘lightning in a bottle’ moments. Unfortunately, like life itself, with spectacular lightning comes the darkness of clouds, thunder, and cold rain. However, the sky always clears. We just need to remember to look up.
11/9/2022 05:04:52 pm
Good one. Keep 'em coming.
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