DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Column by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Archives via Getty Images photo —
Where were you, fifteen years ago?
Yes, that’s the date. February 18, 2001 — the date that changed not just NASCAR racing, but all of motorsports, forever.
It was supposed to be a grand celebration, as the stars of the (at that time) Winston Cup Series took to the track for the greatest race of their year, the 43rd annual Daytona 500.
Instead, the black ink jar was upended onto the page, as the light of the day was forever blotted out by the darkest of stains and the most veteran voice in the Cup garage was forever silenced in one stark moment.
No one remembers that day as being the one where Bill Elliott led the Daytona 500 field to the green flag for the fourth and final time. No one remembers it for the ‘Big One’ on lap 174 that collected 19 cars and sent Tony Stewart end over end down the backstretch. And though some remember it as the day where Michael Waltrip finally ended his self-proclaimed ‘Oh-fer’ drought by winning ‘The Great American Race,’ everyone remembers it for one paramount reason — summed up in one simple word:
Where Was I?
I was sitting on my living room couch through the whole sequence of events that day — a naive seven-year old at the time, yes — but one who was well-initiated into the sport through my family’s history and familiar already with the dangers of drivers climbing behind the wheel and staring imminent disaster in the face at 200 miles an hour. I was simply excited, as so many were, to get the new season underway.
This was a year that NASCAR needed a rebirth. After the year prior, losing Kenny Irwin Jr. (Cup), Adam Petty (Busch, now XFINITY) and Tony Roper (Trucks) all to fatal crashes within the span of eight months, momentum was paramount to holding a caravan of fans shaken to their cores together and being able to climb the hill towards normalcy again.
The sun was shining at Daytona. There were no clouds in the sky. This had the feeling of exactly that — a spark of good to illuminate some of the recent shadows.
No one expected it to end as just the opposite.
Prior to the drop of the green flag, two events occurred that still resonate in the memories of the NASCAR faithful to this day. Both took place moments before the command to fire engines.
The first came when Dale Earnhardt’s wife Teresa leaned into the driver’s side window of the famed No. 3 Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet and said her goodbyes before Earnhardt fired the car and rolled off the pit lane. None in attendance could have known at that moment, that it would be the final goodbye the two ever gave.
10th-starting Ward Burton — a row behind Earnhardt, who rolled off seventh — recalls the moment clearly to this day.
“When my wife [Tabitha] was giving me hugs as I was getting in the car … I can remember vividly [Earnhardt] giving Teresa a last kiss,” Burton said. “Dale … he didn’t seem very comfortable at that moment. I don’t know why. I guess we’ve all got a few butterflies getting ready to start that race, because we know what can happen.”
The second occurred courtesy of Stevie Waltrip, wife of Earnhardt’s long-time rival and three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. She had always made it a habit to deliver a verse of Bible scripture to Earnhardt before every race, which he would tape to his dashboard and keep with him through the event. Though Darrell was not competing in the 500 for the first time in 30 years … Stevie returned to the pit lane and upheld the tradition once more.
The specific passage?
Proverbs 18:10 — “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”
“Awesome Bill,” as they still called Elliott in those days, led the field to the green flag in Dodge’s return to NASCAR after a hiatus in the sport of more than 20 years. While he led the opening lap of the 200 circuits on tap — once he dropped back from the top spot, he never got back to that point the rest of the afternoon.
“I just kind of hung out, rode around, bided my time and saved my stuff,” Elliott remembered of his day behind the wheel.
For Earnhardt however, his day was largely uneventful through the race’s first half, save for leading laps 27 through 37, a caution at lap 49 when Jeff Purvis went spinning and a door-to-door skirmish with Kurt Busch at lap 87. Earnhardt immediately dropped a middle finger to the then-Roush driver as he flashed by for fifth at 185 miles an hour, leading Mike Joy to quip, “And Dale just said, ‘Kurt, you’re number one.'”
Halfway came and went, and with it the intensity began to ratchet up, though the second caution of the afternoon didn’t fly until 43 laps to go — when Busch smacked the turn three wall after he attempted to pass Joe Nemechek for position. At that point, I remember looking at my father (who was sitting next to me) and saying, “They’re going to get excited now.”
And I was right, too.
The Big One
Following the restart, Michael Waltrip began the Earnhardt family’s rise — along with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) — to the front of the pack after he took the lead at lap 167 and brought teammate Steve Park with him. Park would lead the next two laps before Waltrip reasserted control, but the madness was about to begin … and as Burton would later describe things, “it set the whole rest of the chain of events in motion.”
The dreaded ‘Big One’ struck on lap 174 — with just over 26 laps to go — as the field thundered off of turn two and down the Daytona Superstretch. It began with contact in the middle of the pack, and ended with 19 cars destroyed in a cloud of smoke, dust and turf that saw a younger Stewart flip end over end and turned the backstretch into a virtual junkyard.
Reigning champion Bobby Labonte was in it. Jeff Gordon was in it. Park was in it. Burton was in it too, and he remembers exactly how it all went down.
“I know it like it just happened yesterday,” Burton recalls. “We’d had a green-flag stop, and we came out running fourth or fifth. I was sucking up to the 20 car, which was Tony Stewart, in the middle of Turns 1 and 2. I was going to the outside of Tony … that’s just how strong my car was.”
“Robby Gordon had not been in the picture all day. He hit me one time in the right rear … I was a little crossed up, but was gonna save it. He hit me again, and then I was going toward the pond [Lake Lloyd]. My left front hit Tony’s right rear, and that’s what caused the whole melee.”
It’s at that point, Burton says, that everything about that race changed.
“I know if that incident hadn’t happened, Dale Earnhardt would not have been killed that day,” he expresses. “That set the chain of the rest of the events [in motion] … who was up there and who wasn’t to have the situation going on later in the race. I say that in a literal way, but not blaming an individual for Dale’s death. But that moment, when the wreck started on the backstretch, is what created the event later in the day.”
The Final Laps and the Finish
Following a 16 minute, 25 second red flag period, the race resumed at lap 180 and ran green flag to conclusion. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would take his car out in front on the restart, but be quickly swallowed up by the pack two laps after that. His father would lead his 17th and final lap of the race on lap 183, before his team cars would seize the point, ultimately for good.
It was Waltrip who rocketed past to the lead on lap 184, bringing Dale Jr. with him as Senior looked on in third — ready to do whatever it took to aid his cars in reaching victory lane on that day. He threw block after block to keep Sterling Marlin and three-time 500 polesitter Ken Schrader behind as the race wound down to conclusion. As the field knocked circuits off the scoreboard, onlookers began to get the feel that this was how it was going to end … with Waltrip getting to victory lane as the Earnhardts watched on with pride.
Ty Norris, former executive vice president for Michael Waltrip Racing and spotter for the younger Earnhardt on that fateful day in 2001, has said as much of the closing stages.
“No one in their right mind ever thought about Dale not making it to the finish line,” Norris said in 2011. “Why would you [have]?”
And then the white flag flew.
Marlin and Schrader were not content to ride behind Earnhardt any longer, after several failed attempts earlier in the day. They began to mount a charge over the final 2.5 miles.
“Coming to the white, I’d been all over Dale trying to get by,” Marlin recalled. “I kinda let off a little bit going down into Turn 1 to get a run at him, and I got under him coming off two. Schrader was with me, and I said, ‘Well, we’re probably gonna run third. I can’t get to Michael and Dale Jr.’ Schrader was pushing me, and all of a sudden, Schrader disappeared. I looked in my mirror and said, ‘Where’d he go?!?”
Schrader had left Marlin and gone to the top of the race track down the backstretch, trying anything he could to get around the elder Earnhardt. He nearly made it to the outside of the black No. 3, too, but just ran out of steam.
“Going down the backstraightaway, I went up to the top because they were … not … gonna … get …under … Dale,” Schrader insists. “It’s just not gonna happen. He ain’t gonna let us get under him. That’s why I went around Dale. My thinking was, ‘OK, once we get down to Turn 3, somebody’s gonna realize that we’re not all getting underneath Dale. They’ll come to the high side, and I’ll already be there.'”
However, by the time they got to turn three, everyone was there — Marlin on the bottom, Earnhardt in the middle and Schrader up high as the pack closed in behind them. Entering turn four, Marlin’s right front just tapped Earnhardt’s left rear quarter-panel. The touch sent Earnhardt down onto the apron, and as he tried to correct, his car blasted up the banking, into the path of Schrader’s M&Ms-sponsored machine and then nose-first into the outside wall.
“I was right there,” Schrader said in a 2011 NASCAR interview, after watching the footage as recall. “When he came up, he just took us with him. My front bumper was in the middle of his door when he came up. I’m in the middle of the race track, and Rusty and Sterling are inside us. Everybody’s just in that pile, you know?”
Everything after that is a blur. Waltrip streaks to the finish line to win his first-ever Cup race with Dale Jr. in tow, but fear quickly settles in as safety workers and medical personnel surround the accident scene.
In that one moment coming through turn four, the world as NASCAR knows it has just changed forever.
Waltrip goes to celebrate the win in Gatorade Victory Lane, but the longer he goes without seeing the team owner that took a chance on him, the more unease he begins to feel.
“I had it all pictured in my mind, him walking up with that mischievous grin all over his face that seemed to say, ‘Hey, I told you so. Hell, I told everyone so,'” Waltrip said in his book In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona and the Day that Changed Everything. “I kept glancing at the entrance of Victory Lane. I was sure that any moment Big E was going to walk through there and give me what I wanted more than a trophy or a check. He was going to walk in there, start slapping everybody on the back, and say, ‘This is why all of you are on my team. I knew all of you were winners.'”
“While the photographers took pictures and I smiled, I wondered, ‘So what’s taking Dale so long to get here?'”
Finally, through the throng of photographers, Schrader makes it to Victory Lane to talk with Waltrip.
“[Schrader] didn’t look right,” Waltrip said of his longtime friend. “And he wasn’t acting right either. Certainly not the way I had expected him to. He should have been smiling, I thought. He must have been having trouble putting the moment into words.”
“I remember asking him, ‘I know this is a bit of an upset, but is it really that shocking that I actually won a race? You’re speechless?'”
Schrader reached out and grabbed Waltrip’s arms after that. He didn’t say a word, but in that moment, Waltrip knew something was seriously wrong.
It wasn’t until 6 p.m. Eastern time that night, however, that the rest of the world got the news that no one wanted to hear: in four tearful words by NASCAR president Mike Helton.
“We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
The Days (and Years) Since
Perhaps longtime fan Lewis Parrish, who was watching the race from the turn four infield that day, said it best when he described the emotions everyone was feeling ten years after the fact.
“My heart skipped a beat when I heard he died. It was unbelievable that the Man, the Intimidator, the Man in Black was gone. Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001 — Black Sunday — the day the music died.”
I know, for myself, that a part of my unbridled joy at the sport I love so much died that day as well, when it finally set in that the sport would never quite be the same. While I was never a true Earnhardt fan, I always had respect for what he had done on the track and knew that he was just doing what he needed to do to ensure that his cars had their storybook ending.
It just didn’t work out that way for Driver No. 3 on that day.
The sport lost one of its “larger than life” heroes in that moment, and was sent reeling for a time as fans and drivers alike tried to find a way to come together … and recover.
Park started the healing process when he won for DEI the following week at Rockingham, and young upstart Kevin Harvick continued the trend when he won in his third-ever Cup start at Atlanta — driving Earnhardt’s renumbered and recolored Goodwrench Chevrolet.
It all came to a head though, when Junior drove to Daytona Victory Lane in July’s Pepsi Firecracker 400 with Waltrip pushing, in a reversal of roles from the 500 five months prior.
That was the moment when I, along with many others I knew, began to realize that we were all going to be able to move on … and that it was going to be okay, even though Dale Senior was looking on from above now instead of driving circles around everyone else out on the track.
Five years, then 10 and now 15 have passed since that fateful day in 2001. We saw Waltrip score an emotional NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Daytona in 2011 on the anniversary of his first win and mentor’s passing. And on this day, 15 years later, we’ve seen Dale Earnhardt Jr. pay the same honor back by winning his Can-Am Duel under the Daytona lights.
The recovery process has ultimately come full circle now. The last task comes on Sunday, when the 15th Daytona 500 since we lost “The Intimidator” goes green at the ‘World Center of Racing’.
And as I’ve learned in this last decade and a half, the race will never quite be the same without that black No. 3 in the field.
But this time does allow us an opportunity to reflect every year, and take pause as we remember one of the best there’s ever been — and one of the best there likely ever will be.
Even through that reflection, though, Parrish was correct about one thing: February 18, 2001 was indeed the day that a part of NASCAR’s music died forever.
And it’s a day that none of us will ever forget.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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