This Saturday a man with the last name of Earnhardt will slide into the seat, put the helmet on, pull the belts tight, put the wheel on, put the net up and take the track atDaytona. Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is retiring at the end of this current NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series season will look out of the visor at Daytona for the final time. A track that has meant so much to him and his family and a track that took away the families most famous figure.
When dawn broke over the 2001 NASCAR season the optimism about the sport had never been higher. They had just landed a brand new TV deal to be on basic cable for the first time year round thanks to Fox and NBC. The rivalry between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr had never been better. Earnhardt Sr. team Dale Earnhardt Inc. showed tremendous speed all week long leading into the race. That translated on race day as his drivers Michael Waltrip, Steve Park and his son Dale Jr got up front early and stayed there. Park was swept up in a crash with 30 laps to go on the backstretch. Earnhardt Sr was 3rd, Earnhardt Jr was 2nd and Waltrip was leading the race with a perfectly handling car. When the race went back green Earnhardt Sr was clearly wanting to protect his son and employee so they could decide the race on their own. Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader, and Rusty Wallace were charging hard. As they began the white flag lap all the drivers behind the top three started fighting for position so Earnhardt Sr was in the middle of a three-wide race. Marlin touched the rear of Earnhardt Sr. car which got it loose and shot straight up the racetrack into the car Schrader and into the wall. Waltrip went on to the victory with his brother Darrell cheering him on from the booth, Earnhardt Jr finished 2nd.
The two wrecked cars of Schrader and Earnhardt Sr had drifted to a stop in the infield grass. Schrader climbed from his Triumph and walked over to Earnhardt’s car wanting to talk, when he dropped the window net it was an image nobody watching will never forget he jumped back and ushered the medics over. Earnhardt Jr climbed from his car on pit road and started sprinting towards the infield care center. We all sat around our TV’s waiting for safety crews to pull Earnhardt from the car but it never happened finally they cut the roof open and put Earnhardt on a stretcher. Placed him in an ambulance a drove away at a walking pace which is never a good sign. We all sat around waiting for word then finally NASCAR President Mike Helton walked into the press center and uttered the words we’ll hear in our heads forever “after the accident, in Turn, Four at then end of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt” those words were impossible
Five months later NASCAR returned to the track for the first time without Earnhardt Sr. who won their 34 times including the 1998 Daytona 500 after 20 tries. With six laps to go Earnhardt Jr was in 6th place and sliced his way through the field to the lead and guess who was behind him? Waltrip the opposite of five months prior, Waltrip had no intention of passing his teammate and friend who was still grieving his father’s death and followed him home. The two celebrated in the infield joined by Kevin Harvick who replaced Earnhardt crew and all the DEI crews tears flowed. In 2004 Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 to continue the families legacy, ten years later he added another one. Now he looks to add one more victory to the family total of 45 at the world’s most famous racetrack.
Daytona will always be the cathedral of racing in the eyes of the Earnhardt Family.
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