The death of Dale Earnhardt is a day NASCAR fans will never forget. When NASCAR President Mike Helton uttered the infamous words "we've lost Dale Earnhardt" 20 years ago today, it ushered in the darkest period in NASCAR history.
Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and the sport's biggest star, was killed in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. The NASCAR community took to Twitter Thursday to remember Dale Earnhardt and the day that changed the sport forever.
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Earnhardt was not only NASCAR's biggest star but a racing icon known throughout the world. His death 20 years ago sent the motorsports world into mourning over a man who touched nearly every facet of NASCAR and auto racing.
Driving for Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt won 76 NASCAR Cup Series championships and tied legend Richard Petty with seven Cup Series championships. He was inducted into the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
NASCAR honored Earnhardt during Sunday's Daytona 500 with fans standing and raising three fingers on lap No. 3 of the race.
Driving his famous black No. 3, Dale Earnhardt was racing Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and others on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 when his car slammed nose-first into the outside wall, killing him instantly. Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 1-2 in the race, with Waltrip winning his first career race for Earnhardt's Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.
Waltrip relived the dreadful day in an interview with Fox prior to Sunday's Daytona 500. He was in victory lane celebrating his first career victory when he was told that Earnhardt had been in a bad wreck and "it ain't good."
"Twenty years. I thought it was a perfect day," Waltrip said in the tribute on Fox. "Driving off Turn 4 and seeing that checkered flag in the Daytona 500. My first win in the biggest NASCAR race. I remember it so clearly, standing in victory lane thinking I can't wait til Dale gets here. I had no idea what had happened. And here comes Schrader and I said, 'Cool, my friend is here.' And he said, 'It's not good, Mike.' I said, 'what do you mean?' He said, 'I just want you to be prepared, I love you, buddy, and it ain't good.' I began to ask questions, 'why isn't Dale here?'"
Dale Earnhardt memories at Daytona
Earnhardt won a record 34 races at Daytona, but only won the Datyona 500 once. His victory in the 1998 Daytona after 20 tries was widely celebrated throughout the sport.
The legacy of Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt's death ushered in a new era in NASCAR as driver safety became their top priority. Dale Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver killed on the track in 2000-2001, following the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper.
NASCAR made massive changes to both its cars and tracks after Earnhardt's death — changes that are all still in place today. NASCAR has not had another driver fatality since Earnhardt's death.
Dale Earnhardt was also one of NASCAR's most popular drivers and polarizing figures, leading the sport in souvenir sales and marketing. His death devastated his fan base, causing many of his most loyal fans to leave the sport forever. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., became NASCAR's most popular driver and biggest star following his father's death. Earnhardt Jr. is now a NASCAR TV analyst for NBC.
Few drivers have ever had more influence over NASCAR and the sport than Dale Earnhardt.
"When we lost Dale Earnhardt 20 years ago, NASCAR didn't stop," Larry McReynolds, Earnhardt's former crew chief, said on Fox Race Hub Sunday morning. "We went right to Rockingham the next week and kept right on racing. But it chagned and it changed forever. He is still the face of our sport."