February 18th, 2001. A day that NASCAR fans will remember forever. It was the start of a new season. The Daytona 500! It began with so much hope and ended in deep tragedy! It had the highest of highs and a low that no one would have thought possible. It was the first win of his career for Michael Waltrip, a veteran with much never realized potential and it was the day that NASCAR lost it’s biggest icon, Dale Earnhardt.
On the last lap of the Daytona 500, with his friend, the new driver of his new second team, leading the race, Dale Earnhardt crashed in turn 3 and died of severe head trauma. A fatal basilar skull fracture that killed him instantly. In what would have been one of his proudest moments, watching his friend win NASCAR biggest race, Dale did not live to see it. Triumph and tragedy in the distance from turn 3 to the finish line. A quarter of a lap.
As Michael Waltrip, joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr., celebrated Michael’s crowning career achievement and a 1-2 finish for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, safety crews were trying to extract Dale Sr. from his wrecked car. Waltrip, Junior and the rest of the NASCAR world had no idea that the world as they knew it had already changed. There would be no more Intimidator. No more Man in Black. The man they had all feared on the track yet respected in the garage would no longer be there. The sport and their lives would be changed forever.
In the days following Dale’s death, there was much darkness and uncertainty for the NASCAR community. Should they race the next week? Who would replace Dale in the black #3? How do the keep from losing more drivers! They had some very tough questions to answer and the person they all looked to wasn’t there to answer them.
They did race the next weekend. Kevin Harvick stepped into the now rebranded, renumbered 29 car at RCR. Tributes were made at each track that followed with fans holding up 3 fingers on the third lap to honor Dale. Steve Park, DEI’s third driver, won the next race at North Carolina Speedway and Kevin Harvick would win 2 races later at Atlanta. Slowly, things began to return to normal.
NASCAR began the process of evaluating and changing their rules and regulations to keep their drivers safer. They created a new division dedicated to looking at how to make safety changes. They mandated the use of the recently invented HANS device for all drivers, made safety changes to the cars and began adding the SAFER barrier system to all tracks to make contact with the walls safer. In a twist of fate, the man who had shunned safety for comfort, became the catalyst for improving driver safety not just in NASCAR but all of racing.
For Dale Jr., the weeks that followed were hard and racing seemed almost impossible. His heart and his head were not into racing. He crashed hard on the very first lap of the next race and did not do well over the course of the next few races. Finally, at the Harrah’s 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Dale Jr. won the pole and finished inside the top 10 for the first time since Daytona. He followed it up 2 weeks later with a top 10 at Talladega, a top 5 finish at California, top 10 at Richmond and another top 5 at Dover. Things were turning around!
Then it was time to return to Daytona. To return to the scene of devastation. It is hard to imagine the feelings and anxiety that Dale Jr. must have been feeling. When he first arrived to the track for that weekend, he drove over to turn 3 where his life and his legacy had changed forever and made peace with it. It was one of those moments where you decide if the moment will rule you for the rest of your life of are you going to rule the moment. Over the course of that weekend and his many returns to Daytona, the choice was clear!
Dale Jr. ran well in practice and qualified lucky 13th. He would not need any luck. He made his own! It wasn’t long before Jr. was running at the front of the field. He led 111 of the first 140 laps and was in 6th after a caution on lap 151. The green flag dropped again on lap 155 and it didn’t take him long to pass the other 5 cars. Having been in attendance that day, I can tell you that when he took the lead that final time, it was pandemonium! There was not a single seat in use, there was not a single silent voice and every hand was either clapping or raised in triumph! When finally crossed the finish line to seal the moment, there were few dry eyes.
In that moment, Dale Jr. became a new man. He had found joy again. He could celebrate again. To add to the moment, Michael Waltrip who had been able to celebrate the greatest win of his career and arguably the greatest moment in any drivers career, was finally able to celebrate too. Two men who had experienced the greatest losses of their lives 6 months earlier embraced and rejoiced in a moment that was like something written from a fairy tale or big budget Hollywood script. The rest of us were happy to be along for the ride and to play a bit part in one of the greatest stories in all of sports.
Moments of healing on such a grand scale are hard to find. Even if you were not a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan, you relished in hating or rooting against him. He was the man in black. The Intimidator! When that person is gone, there is a void. All of NASCAR mourned his loss. Good or bad. Could it ever be the same again? Who were you going to root for! Who were you going to root against? That night in Daytona, all those questions were answered and everything felt right again in the world.