Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ten Years Later

I was in Daytona that fateful day, ten years ago. Sitting along the front stretch, watching the drama unfold as the afternoon went on. That year's Daytona 500 was a great race with 14 different lap leaders. This was also Dodge's first race back in the Cup series in quite awhile.

The Dodge boys were strong that day as Bill Elliott started from the pole, Ward Burton led the most laps, and Sterling Marlin looked to have the car to beat for most of the day.

The 'big one' came on lap 174 that year. I wouldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure that it was Robby Gordon that turned Tony Stewart on the back stretch. Stewart went sailing through the air, directly over his JGR teammate, Bobby Labonte's, car. Probably the most cars I've ever seen wreck in person. The race box score lists 19 cars involved in that melee.

When the green flag flew on lap 180, Dale Earnhardt Jr was leading, and the fans were in for a 20 lap shootout. Marlin took the lead for a lap, then Dale Sr powered to the front, for one lap, on lap 183. Mike Waltrip got by Sr on the very next lap, and never was headed off. Winning the race on lap 200, as all hell broke loose, in NASCAR's world, behind him.

With his two, self-owned, DEI cars running first and second, Dale Sr was determined to hold off the pack of hungry drivers nipping at their wheels. Earnhardt was the master at Daytona, but he was mortal after all. He tried to block two different lines of cars going into turn three. First, he pulled low to stall out Marlin. Sr's car was a little loose after that, but he still went high to block Ken Schrader.

He didn't quite pull it off, as his car was out of control, and heading straight for the wall as Schrader's car also hit him. At this time Waltrip and Jr were crossing the finish line, still one, two. I doubt anyone in attendance then, would have suspected that Sr was even hurt, let alone, so much worse.

I know I didn't, as I was giving Sr and his fans a few choice words about him wrecking Schrader. Looking back, I'm embarassed to admit I did that, but no one knew his condition at that time.

A few hours later, driving up I-95, through the dark woods of Georgia, we heard the announcement on the radio..."We've lost Dale Earnhardt." My head was spinning. How could this be?

We were stunned. I called my brother, a big Dale fan, he was crying when he answered the phone. There wasn't much to say, he just relayed to us what was happening on TV.

We spent the rest of the trip home holding back tears, and sharing Dale Sr stories. How he amazed us. How he enraged us.

Dale Earnhardt Sr.....The Best Driver I ever saw!

First posted 2-18-09 at Foxsports. Originally titled 'February, 18, 2001'.


  1. Thanks for reposting this Gene...

  2. Great memories Gene!

    My buddy and I were at the race too. We knew things were bad when they were covering his car so nothing could be photographed, but we didn't think he could die. We thought he was hurt, but death, no way.

    We hurried back to our car parked somewhere way behind Bob Evans in the woods just so we could hear any updates of his condition. Usually, we would wait about 3 hours before leaving, but we wanted info as quick as possible.

    I remember updates coming on ESPN radio saying he was hurt, but no real insight to how bad. Then Shelly Smith came on reporting that "It's believed that Dale Earnhardt has died."

    We were both in shock and disbelief. We turned our anger towards the reporter -- who to this day I never have anything nice to say about -- because of the way she reported it. It wasn't a confirmed death, it was like a rumor. We didn't like it all.

    When the official announcement did eventually come, we were quiet for the entire ride back to Orlando, which was the longest, most silent ride I've ever been on. Upon getting back to the hotel,my friend and I still didn't talk. We both chose to say nothing and gather our thoughts alone.

    I walked to a bar, watched SportsCenter -- which was non-stop highlights and interviews with other drivers regarding Earnhardt -- and ordered a draft beer and bourbon and had the bartender keep them coming.

    Between my own sadness and the assistance of Mr. Daniels, I grieved pretty good that night. My buddy and I eventually met up a few hours later at the bar and had a classic drunken conversation regarding Earnhardt about what he meant to NASCAR, what the future holds and truly felt for his fans.

    Neither of us were Earnhardt fans in particular, we just respected him. As bad as we felt, we could imagine how other must have felt who bought all in to what "the man in black" represented whether it was attitude, gear, apparel or trinkets.

    As miserable as I was that day, It still remains one of my most memorable moments. Can't tell you why or how, but it really affected me.

    It was with those same feelings that found me being so very happy to for Dale Jr. when he came back to Daytona and won in the summer.

    The irony of it all was that Earnhardt never did anything for anybody on the track but himself, always trying to win every race. The one race where he wasn't trying to win, choosing to block, playing the only game in NASCAR he wasn't skilled at, it cost him his life.

  3. thanks for re-posting Gene!

    I like millions of others watched the race on TV. Being from Ky and having always had a soft spot for Mikey Waltrip (esp. after he survived that Bristol practice crash back in like 1990) I was actually pretty happy that he had won. I remember thinking, Oh he will be fine, I have seen Earnhardt walk away from way worse than that.
    I was never an Earnhardt fan, but always respected him and his ability. After his death, all the stories he never wanted people to know about got shared. Those stories showed he deserved way more respect for the person that he was.

  4. Hey guys, thanks for sharing your experiences from that day.

    Just like you Fireball, It was a day I'll never forget, and I bet all fans remember exactly where they were when they heard the bad news.

    I wasn't a fan of his either, but I respected his ability behind the wheel. He consistently won races without having the best car on the track. I can't recall any other driver doing that as often.

  5. it made the sports part of the 6 o'clock news in Australia, just like every Daytona 500 did....apologies for being blunt but that's how it was.

  6. Something I will never forget but wished I could.