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Who knew that the final lap would be his last lap?
As Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line of the Daytona 500 Feb. 21, 2001, his brother Darrell in the broadcasting booth became both emotional and concerned all at the same time.
The emotion came from watching his little brother claim the checkered flag. The concern was for his racing brother who just seconds earlier had slammed into the wall on Turn 4.
“I just hope Dale’s okay. He’s alright isn’t he?” Waltrip spoke those words from the Fox Sports broadcast booth less than a minute after the race had ended. What he and fans at the track and those watching on television did not realize was that Dale Earnhardt was already dead.
“We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt,” were the words of NASCAR President Mike Helton, and just like that the sport of NASCAR would never be the same.
It is a moment that sports fans can tell you where they were when they heard the news. It was not just a sports story but it was the lead story in newspapers and news broadcasts for several days. Many people who did not even watch racing knew who Dale Earnhardt was. Who could not recognize him in the ever-present sunglasses? He was the “Intimidator.”
Dale Earnhardt may have been the greatest racer to have ever lived; and in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
Fans of NASCAR have seen more dramatic crashes before and since that day. Cars have flipped over and over and when the car finally came to a rest the driver climbed out and waved to the crowd. Not on this day. Doctors say Earnhardt was killed instantly when his No. 3 black car hit the wall.
This was not how it was supposed to end. Not for one of the toughest and maybe most intense men ever to get behind the wheel of a race car. Dale Earnhardt was supposed to get out of the car, dust himself off and refuse any medical treatment.
Some have said since that day that it was Earnhardt’s own stubbornness that eventually got him killed. He drove fearlessly and refused to wear a HANS device that might have saved his life. Earnhardt and several other drivers said the device that helps support a driver’s neck in a crash was uncomfortable and he did not want to wear one. We will never know if it would have made a difference.
On Sunday, another NASCAR season will begin at Daytona just like it did 10 years ago. Race fans will once again gather in the Florida sunshine and root for their favorite driver to cross the finish line ahead of everyone else.
As the season begins, many experts again believe Jimmie Johnson is the driver to beat. Why not? He has only won the last five Sprint Cup titles. On Sunday, however, I wonder how many fans will be pulling for someone else to win. How fitting as the sun sets on Daytona that it might be another Earnhardt pulling into victory lane.
Ten years ago, Dale Jr. finished second behind Waltrip. He will be on the pole Sunday when the race begins. Fans are being asked to honor the memory of Dale Sr. during the race by having a moment of silence on the third lap. What better tribute could there be than to have his son to capture his second Daytona 500 victory.