NASCAR, like real life, has its "where were you when such and such happened" moment.
Tragic events are seared into our minds, like The Challenger explosion, 9/11, or Sandy Hook. Stock-car racing has had its share of heartbreaking incidents, but none like what happened on a sunny afternoon on Feb. 18, 2001.
The Daytona 500 is a magical day in motorsports and has the unofficial nickname of NASCAR’s Super Bowl even though it opens the season rather than closes it. It is a race that makes careers, and the celebration usually lasts into the wee hours of the morning.
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Twenty years ago, Michael Waltrip had just taken the checkered flag for his first career victory as cars were wrecking behind him. It was not an unusual sight because everyone is fighting for the last inch of track, usually occupied by someone else.
The party was on. Then it wasn’t.
One of the cars in the multi-car pileup belonged to Dale Earnhardt, and NASCAR safety crews surrounded it for what seemed like an eternity. When word reached the winner’s circle, the smiles turned to looks of concern. They had a right to be.
NASCAR president delivers news of Dale Earnhardt's death
When then-NASCAR president Mike Helton held a microphone in the media center at Daytona International Speedway later that evening, his few words sent shockwaves through the industry and worldwide.
“We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
Known as The Intimidator, Earnhardt was driving for Richard Childress Racing. Knowing he was not going to win, he was trying to hold off the field as two entries from Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) were running one-two in Waltrip and Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr. On the final lap, he made contact with Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader, and his black No. 3 Chevrolet crashed nose-first into the outside retaining wall, killing him instantly. The day was dubbed “Black Sunday.”
Marlin would win a pair of races that year and had a distinguished 33-year career at NASCAR’s top level, but that didn’t matter. Fans blamed him for Earnhardt’s death, sending him hate mail and death threats. Dale Jr. told his fans that Marlin and his dad were good friends and not to hold him responsible for what happened. Days later, Marlin issued a statement:
“I definitely didn't do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out for the last lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody was going for it. Dale's car got caught in the middle (with Schrader). I was as low as I could go. Whether Rusty Wallace got him loose and down into me, I don't know. You have to talk to Rusty Wallace. I watched the tape one time, and that is all I want to see it.”
Waltrip would repeat as Daytona 500 champion two years later, but in 2004, Dale Jr. had the racing world in tears when he captured NASCAR's Great American Race for the first time. What took his father 20 years to accomplish, Junior did it in his fifth season.
There have been four NASCAR father-son duos to win the pole for the Daytona 500, the Pettys (Richard and Kyle), Allisons (Bobby and Davey), Earnhardts, and Elliotts (Bill and Chase). The Earnhardts joined Bobby and Davey Allison as the only father-son combos to win the Great American Race.
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