Sunday, December 20, 2009

Earnhardt's Last Lap: 2001 Daytona 500

By Holly Cain

Over the next two weeks, FanHouse will be covering the top sports stories of the decade. In our first installment, Holly Cain looks back at the 2001 Daytona 500 and the impact that losing Dale Earnhardt had on NASCAR.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Initially it looked like a routine last lap crash in the Daytona 500. Nothing spectacular. Dale Earnhardt had a resume full of last-lap disappointments in this great race.

So on Sunday, February 18, 2001, most of us sitting in the press box high above Daytona International Speedway fully expected the indomitable, rascally Earnhardt to once again climb out of his wrecked race car, wave to the crowd, and argue with the track workers about an ambulance ride to the care center, insisting instead on heading directly to victory circle to congratulate his longtime friend Michael Waltrip for scoring the first win of his career and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a chip-off-the-ol-block, runner-up effort.

Earnhardt's inevitable anger that he crashed would be supplanted by pride for his team, we figured.

Earnhardt's fatal crash into the Turn 4 wall late that afternoon proved to be anything but routine and, in fact, changed absolutely everything routine about the sport.

The 2001 Daytona 500 is FanHouse's pick as Motorsports Story and Race of the Decade.

NASCAR President Mike Helton's painful, shocking pronouncement that sunny spring afternoon, "We have lost Dale Earnhardt" also makes it the biggest watershed moment in the sport's 61-year history.

Mike HeltonNot only did NASCAR fans lose a hero, the sport lost its last genuine link to its gritty roots -- the no-frills, tell-it-like-is, everyman's racer.

Earnhardt was the ultimate combination of old-school grit and new-age marketability. And best of all, there was no one better behind the wheel of a stock car. His seven championships tied him with the pioneering great Richard Petty. And Earnhardt earned his titles racing against the best of multiple generations.

He beat Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Petty and Benny Parsons for the 1980 title. Fourteen years later, he out-ran Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip and Mark Martin for the 1994 trophy.

Earnhardt embraced and fostered his image of the "Man in Black," driving the famous black, Goodwrench No. 3 Chevy, and his well-deserved nickname, "The Intimidator," which gave him a psychological edge over his competition before the green flag even dropped.

NASCAR fans either loved him or tried to hate him, but all appreciated the way he made every race exciting. Earnhardt was all suspense and drama -- whether you watched him because there always the potential for him put his bumper to another car, or just for the sheer amazement in watching him come from 18th place with 11 laps to go for the last win of his life at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in October 2000.

Earnhardt's talents weren't limited to the steering wheel either, and that's what separated him from the rest of the field. Off-track, he led the way in making a million-dollar souvenir and merchandising side-sport that was taking off in sync with NASCAR's exponentially growing popularity in the late 1990s.

The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first race as part of a historic billion-dollar network television deal with FOX Sports and NBC. For the first time, every race on the 10-month schedule through a bevy or new and major markets in Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles was on network TV instead of being relegated to cable station filler.

This was NASCAR's launch into middle America's living rooms, its chance to prove itself legitimate among the country's top-tier professional sports.

And the already dramatic story of the Daytona 500 and NASCAR's modern-day hero Earnhardt was must-see television.

He and Daytona had a love-hate relationship. Earnhardt had won more races on NASCAR's most iconic track than anyone, but it took him 20 agonizing tries before he landed a Daytona 500 trophy in 1998.

And then three years later to die on the final lap of the his sport's biggest race -- was too tragic even for a Hollywood script.

What it did was spark public outrage, dominate attention and ultimately led to the most significant and widespread safety initiatives in NASCAR history.

Three other drivers had been killed in the year leading up to Earnhardt's death: Cup driver Kenny Irwin, truck series competitor Tony Roper and 18-year old Adam Petty, son of veteran driver Kyle and grandson of NASCAR's King Richard.

However, it wasn't until Earnhardt's fatal accident that NASCAR delivered a serious look and heavy-handed approach to the sport's safety.

The blessing of having mainstream America watching closely also demanded a new sense of accountability.

Overnight, Earnhardt's fatal accident attracted the daily attention of news outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN. Time Magazine put Earnhardt on the cover. Television carried his funeral on a live broadcast.

The morning after the race, the late NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. held a news conference in a tent outside Daytona International Speedway only to find the group of 40-50 reporters who had been covering Daytona Speedweeks for the last two weeks had suddenly morphed into a crowded, accusatory, standing room only crowd triple that size. Investigative reporters and hard-news types had pounced.

Fans, drivers and journalists demanded answers. And NASCAR's response, which began in those initial hours and weeks, has directly or indirectly led to many of the most significant safety innovations in auto racing.

From the head-and-neck restraint devices NASCAR now requires drivers to wear to the opening of its Research and Development (R&D) facility in suburban Charlotte, the sanctioning body has never been more proactive in its approach.

And perhaps the most significant improvement to come out of all this is the accelerated implementation of soft wall technology that is now at all NASCAR-sanctioned tracks and many that don't even host a stock car race.

Long after the safety debate quieted, its critics mostly appeased, the news outlets are still keeping an eye on NASCAR reaping praise and offering critique.

It's next-generation stars like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon are household names, magazine cover material and in some cases, even tabloid fodder.

NASCAR's entry into middle American living rooms came by way of the the harshest and most tragic circumstance. The sport however, responded in a way, Earnhardt would appreciate -- it got back on track, plowed ahead, made the right moves and has proven itself viable and thriving.

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