The 2001 Daytona 500 looked like a carefully plotted Hollywood script. Then, reality reared its ugly head. As the laps dwindled down, all the elements of a successful movie plot were being played out. First came tension with the return of old mimesis Dodge, creating more competition in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Now, while battling Ford and even cousin Pontiac, the Chevys in NASCAR had to stay ahead of the new Dodges, too.
The human-interest element was at the front of the pack, and it was a strong one. Michael Waltrip, winless in 462 consecutive point race starts was finally looking at win number one. It was his first ride for his new car owner, a guy who believed Waltrip could get the job done and created a brand new team for him to do just that. Waltrip was leading his teammate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. If that wasn't enough drama, their car owner was in third place trying to keep the other brands from ruining a 1-2-3 Chevy finish.
As the last lap ran towards the checkered flag, Waltrip in the new NAPA Auto Parts Monte Carlo led Earnhardt, Jr. in the Budweiser Chevy for the win. Back in turn four, Earnhardt was driving his usual black No.3 GM Goodwrench Chevy, owned by Richard Childress, and was smack dab in yet another story element, conflict. Sterling Marlin had already proven himself to be one of the fastest cars of the race and was looking to get ahead of Earnhardt as the pack finished up with turn four.
That's when reality struck. In Hollywood racing is all spectacular stunts, great fun, and games, and everybody is okay after the big wreck. Reality is not anywhere near as nice. As the two cars of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) were crossing the line for the flag and win, history was also recording what would be the death of racing legend Dale Earnhardt.
A complex series of accidents comprised the wreck of Dale Earnhardt. First, he was the middle car of a three-wide pack, and anyone in that position that day was buffeted around like a lottery ball waiting to be drawn. Second, Earnhardt was also trying to run a defensive maneuver by blocking Marlin's run from the bottom lane. Third, as that was happening, another car came up behind Earnhardt thereby taking some air off the rear of the No.3 car. All this was in motion while the cars were still in the turn, thereby adding more yaw to the car's profile into the wind at 180-mph-plus. The No.3 car and the No.40 of Marlin then made light contact with their respective rear quarters (NO, MARLIN DID NOT HIT EARNHARDT), and Earnhardt's car made a quick right that took him hard into the outside wall. Doctors would later say that injuries sustained at the time of impact were fatal. Subsequent investigations would find a freak break in a lapbelt contributed greatly to the cause of death.
As the accident happened on the last turn of the last lap, Michael Waltrip in Victory Lane had no idea his car owner was mortally injured. Waltrip enjoyed what celebration he could while keeping one eye, and most of his heart, on the turn four crash site and the extraction of Earnhardt. So ended what millions saw on TV. It didn't take long for word to spread, and soon Earnhardt fans all over the world knew their fearless intimidator was gone. NASCAR President Mike Helton simply said, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt," to a stunned press conference.
Race fans are a hardy bunch, but none were truly ready to let go of the death of what many called the best stock car driver in the business. Race fans mourned. All week long large flags and signs with the distinctive No.3 showed up everywhere from news shows to the crowd at a WWF wrestling match. Flowers and well wishers lined the fences of DEI. Flower orders in Charlotte had a two-month backlog. Fans didn't wait for race day to wear their favorite Earnhardt shirts and jackets-they had been living in them since Sunday. Trucks rolling down the highway had messages hand written on their dusty trailer doors like, "We will miss you No.3." Even the President of the United States issued a statement that included, "Dale was an American icon who made great contributions to his sport. Dale's legacy will live on for millions of Americans. He was an inspiration to many." But it was time for some sort of closure, and the next race was the place.
The track at Rockingham, North Carolina, is called The Rock, and there fans, friends, and the NASCAR family could say goodbye to Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR races are usually a fun place to be. This time though The Rock was noticeably quiet as fans filed in. Flags were half-mast. Each fan was given a Dale Earnhardt pennant for a special pre-race ceremony. Almost everyone in the pits and garage, regardless of team and corporate sponsors, wore a special black hat with the familiar No.3 on it. Crewmembers of the three DEI cars wore white hats to honor their boss. When the fans were asked by Darrell Waltrip to hold hands and give a moment of silence for Earnhardt, the DEI crewmembers stood atop the wall separating the track from the pits and held up the same pennants to face the crowd. Plans were made for a military fly by to honor the day with the missing man formation, but the steady drizzle that covered the area prohibited that. (A week later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the fly by, an honor rarely bestowed on civilians, was impressively performed by four, Air Force F-16s.)
When race pole winner and fellow Chevy driver Jeff Gordon paced The Rock's starting field, he dropped back one row to leave the pole position open and make NASCAR's version of the missing man formation. All cars sported No.3 stickers inside for TV cameras to catch and outside for the fans to see. FOX TV, in only their second race of their new NASCAR coverage, instituted a silent lap three for the remainder of the year during which their announcers would not talk. The familiar black and silver GM Goodwrench hauler's tailgate sported graffiti in the form of written messages from crewmembers from all the other teams. When it was opened, Richard Childress's black No.3 was now a white No.29. At a press conference Childress said, "We will never run a No.3 black Goodwrench car again." NASCAR has yet to retire a car number, but Childress, who the number is registered to, will not use it for the remainder of the year. After that, it is unclear. Both Childress and Earnhardt agreed to keep the number and their racing going if anything ever happened to the other. The new No.29 GM Goodwrench Chevy was driven by Kevin Harvick. Plans had called for Harvick to be brought up later in the year and for a full time ride in 2002. Reports had Earnhardt telling Childress he'd better snag Harvick as a driver or DEI would. Now Harvick has taken the empty seat of the Goodwrench car. Life can be strange.
When the race finally got started, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got caught up in traffic jam up on turn four and went straight to the outside wall on the first lap. Almost everyone at The Rock held their breath until it was clear he was okay. The crew elected to pack it up and go home. In the end it was teammate Steve Park in the Pennzoil Chevy who won, making it two for two for DEI. The next week, racing seemed a little more back to normal, and Dale Jr. got to race. Winning a third straight for Chevy was Jeff Gordon.
Dale Earnhardt was born into a racing family. His father, Ralph, was already inked onto NASCAR's win list. The young Dale worked his way up to NASCAR with a variety of rides including a pinkish colored '55 Chevy, numbered K-2. The die-cast version is still a highly sought collectable.
His first rides in NASCAR Winston Cup were at a slow rate. One race a year from 1975 through 1977 was all he could get. Even in 1978 he only got five chances to race. In 1979 that changed, and Rod Osterlund gave the youngster a chance at a full-time ride. There was no holding Earnhardt back-he not only won Rookie of the Year honors but also won his first race and finished seventh in overall points. Now people started watching Ralph's kid.
The next year he really gave them something to talk about as he won five races, over half a million in purse money and the Winston Cup title. It would be the first of a record-tying SEVEN championships. To look at that in the proper perspective, Earnhardt and Richard Petty each have seven titles while the most any other driver has won is three-more than double.
Earnhardt drove for three different drivers the next year (1981), including a driver that had just decided to hang up his helmet, Richard Childress. Earnhardt brought his new Wrangler sponsorship with him but took a deal with Bud Moore, a NASCAR legend, to drive Moore's Fords. Earnhardt stayed there for two more years. Bud Moore told the story about Chevy trying to woo Earnhardt back to the Bow-Tie guys. Moore even called up Ford and told them they were going to lose Earnhardt because Chevy had given him a brand new Corvette, and Ford had better do something. The rest is history.
Dale Earnhardt and his Wrangler jeans threw in with Childress again in 1982 and found a home. Together, the two won six championships, 66 races, and the hearts of countless fans. They both chased the dream of winning the Daytona 500, and even though they own the record of winning their 125-mile qualifying race for 10 years straight, they did not win the 500 until 1998. After the win, Earnhardt used his Goodwrench Chevy to burn a number three-shaped donut into the infield grass and later asked the press how they liked his handwriting. The win was an emotional one as pit row was lined with crewmembers from all teams to high five the smiling winner as he slowly drove to Victory Lane. It had taken Dale 20 years to win NASCAR's biggest race, and it remained the highlight win of his career.
Overall on the NASCAR win list Dale sits in sixth position with 75 wins. Along with all those wins, Earnhardt won the most money of any modern day driver with well over $36 million in career earnings. And that elusive eighth Winston Cup title? Dale finished second last year in a highly contested battle.
Kevin Harvick Wins Magical First Race For Dale Earnhardt
Kevin Harvick got the ride he didn't want to get when Dale Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500. He even admits this has been "the hardest situation" of his life. But maybe he got some help from an unexpected ally. Driving the newly numbered No.29 GM Goodwrench Chevy Monte Carlo owned by Richard Childress, Kevin won the Cracker Barrel 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. To make the story even more amazing, he won by literally inches over fellow Chevy driver, Jeff Gordon, who had battled back after losing a lap when he ran out of gas.
There seemed to be plenty of magic in the air. As fans held up their hands with three fingers up for a third lap honoring of Earnhardt, 7000 black balloons were released-1000 for each of the seven Winston Cup titles Earnhardt won. Also on lap three, was a yellow flag for the third straight race. This was also the third Winston Cup race for Kevin. The threes were starting to add up.
After all that settled down and the race progressed, the Chevys looked strong all day but at the line for the win it was the white No.29. Car owner Richard Childress said, "I just keep praying there at the end-praying for Dale to help us-and he did. I'm speechless."
After making a Polish Victory Lap (invented by the late Champion Alan Kulwicki where the driver circles the track in reverse direction to salute the fans) and holding out three fingers to the emotional crowd, Harvick drove into the pits to find a reception line of crewmembers waiting to salute him. When he finally made it to Victory Lane, one of the first things out of his mouth was, "All I can say is that this is for Dale Earnhardt and his whole team. They stood behind me, and I gave it all I got." He went on to say, "I think Dale Earnhardt was in the passenger seat of this car today. Somebody was making me go a whole lot better than I was." The teary-eyed crew posed for winner's photos, and someone asked Kevin if he believed in magic. "Somebody should" was his reply.
Even Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got caught up in and said, "The competitor in me is a little jealous. But I'm real happy for Richard and especially for the team because I know how much my father meant to those guys. And it really makes me feel good to go home tonight knowing those guys have something to celebrate."