10 years after No. 3's last lap

DAYTONA BEACH

As you might expect, their memories of the day differ slightly. For there was too much going on, and too many emotions involved. There were some drivers still at the track, and others already on airplanes heading home. Some learned the news on the radio, others saw it in the worried faces of those hurrying past.

Yet, through all the different vantage points and all the varying degrees of intimacy, one view of the 2001 Daytona 500 has remained unmistakably clear in retrospect.

It was on this day, 10 years ago, that NASCAR changed forever.

• • •

"This is great! I just hope Dale is okay. I guess he's all right, isn't he?"

Fox announcer Darrell Waltrip sobbing happily on national television in the moments after his brother Michael won the Daytona 500, his first victory in 463 NASCAR races. A quarter-mile in front of the checkered flag was the wreckage of Dale Earnhardt's car after crashing headfirst into a wall while apparently blocking Sterling Marlin to protect first and second place for Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

• • •

The 2001 Daytona 500 was all that is enticing about stock car racing. Drama. Surprise. Emotion. It had a spectacular multicar crash earlier in the race with Tony Stewart's car flying through the air and landing on Bobby Labonte's hood.

And in the end, it had the long-suffering Waltrip winning his first race in his debut for Earnhardt's racing team.

"The day was a quarter-mile away from being the best Daytona 500 ever. And instead, it's the worst race ever," Michael Waltrip said. "I live with that. I'm the winner of that race."

NASCAR is a sport of abundant personalities. Of Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts. Of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers. And yet no driver has ever seemed quite as polarizing as Dale Earnhardt.

He was the Intimidator. The dirt-poor kid with a ninth-grade education who turned himself into a millionaire with his smarts, his determination and his utterly fearless driving style. Earnhardt had a following of racing fans who saw something of a kindred spirit in this everyman. He was no-nonsense. He was the antithesis of fancy. He was one of them.

"The impact he made on the fans in this sport, and just the public in general even outside of racing, to me is his real legacy," driver Jeff Gordon said. "It's like Elvis-stuff going on there. And that's unbelievable."

By the time that Daytona 500 started, Earnhardt was months away from his 50th birthday and making the transition from driver to car owner. Still, he was no honorary competitor. Earnhardt had finished second in the season standings in 2000 and was itching to become the first eight-time Cup champion.

• • •

"I don't like that. That's the kind of crash that hurts you. … That sudden stop head-on into the wall, that's a driver's worst nightmare."

Darrell Waltrip, on Fox, while watching replays of Earnhardt's crash as his brother celebrated in Victory Lane.

• • •

The first indication something was wrong came from Ken Schrader. Just as Earnhardt was going headfirst into the wall, Schrader's car went into Earnhardt's passenger side. The cars drifted down from the top of the track and came to rest in the grass.

Schrader climbed out of his car and went to Earnhardt's driver-side window. He immediately backed away and began waving wildly for an ambulance. Later, as Michael Waltrip wondered why Earnhardt was not joining him at Victory Lane, it was Schrader who grabbed him by the wrists and whispered that it didn't look good.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had already begun sprinting toward the infield medical center, not knowing the ambulance was taking his father to a nearby hospital. Gordon remembers walking past Earnhardt Sr.'s wife, Teresa, and not liking the look on her face.

Meanwhile, others were already leaving the track, unaware the most famous man in the sport had died almost instantly from massive head and chest injuries. Labonte, incensed about being knocked out in the earlier wreck, had already boarded his private plane home.

"I had my scanner with me, and I was listening to the radio," Labonte said. "I'll never forget it. I was with my wife. My kids didn't know … and they were all wondering why we were crying."

Earnhardt's death was NASCAR's fourth in barely a year's time. The organization had already begun looking into more advanced safety measures before that Daytona 500, but the process was accelerated with all of this new attention.

Soon, it became mandatory for every driver to use a HANS device, a hard collar that keeps the head from snapping forward or backward. Soft walls were installed at tracks. Better seats and belts were devised, and black boxes were put in every car to record crash data. In the 10 years since that 500, NASCAR has not lost a single driver in one of its major series.

Earnhardt, who had shunned a lot of safety innovations, had become the sport's greatest safety advocate in his death.

"I like to think of the positives of that day," Michael Waltrip said.

"And the last thing Dale saw on this earth was me and Dale Jr. driving off to win the Daytona 500."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

10 years after No. 3's last lap 02/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 3:51pm]

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