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.