Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tom

A year ago today, my cell phone rang. It was 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.

On the other end of the call was my mother-in-law Jean, and she was crying. Although it was hard to make out exactly what she was saying, when I heard her say something about not being able to wake Tom, my father-in-law, I didn't ask any questions. I threw on a pair of old running shoes ... I have no idea when I'd worn them last ... and flew out the door just a few seconds after ending the call with Jean.

I prayed hard during the five, maybe six-mile drive to their home. Surely, he was just really tired and when I got there, he would be barking at Nanny for waking him up. I considered not calling Jeanie, who was in court in Yadkinville.

Tom and I on the day Jeanie and I were married. Just before we left the church, Tom gave Jeanie some cash. He'd carefully placed a $1 bill on the outside of the roll to disguise the $501 total amount.
It was a short consideration. We have something of a code. When it's important, we say call me NOW. Otherwise, it's just call me when you take a break and get a chance. This was a call me NOW situation if ever there was one. She called ... I answered ... and she, too, was out the door.

Jean was watching for me, and later said that she saw me coming into the driveway on two wheels. I ran to the door, entered their house, saw Tom ... and knew he was already gone.

The 911 operator asked me if I wanted to try CPR. I had to do something, so she told me to start chest compressions. I knew how to do them from my training at the Y. Just do 600 compressions until help arrives. I was on maybe 300 or so when the first sheriff's deputies arrived. They jumped in.

I went outside, breathless and my legs quivering. I called Jeanie. I didn't know what to say, other than I was sorry. Her dad was gone.

EMTs arrived. Somebody had helped Jean to a back bedroom. I took over compressions at some point, and whilst I did, I both felt and heard at least one of Tom's ribs break. I paused a split second and mentioned it, but was told to keep going.

Even today, a year later, I can still remember the sound and feel of the crack of that bone. Tom, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. 

Honestly, though, it didn't matter. Tom was already on the other side of his life's journey. What remained was merely his Earthly shell, and he didn't need it any more.

As hard as that day was, it is remarkable how everybody involved was exactly where they needed to be. Jeanie, the boys and I were supposed to start the journey to Houston, Texas by car the next day. I cannot begin to imagine what Jean's phone call would've been like had we been somewhere in Mississippi when it came.

I'd run that morning, and had already showered. Jeanie was in court in Yadkinville. Her sister, Angie, was working from home.

Tom was a lot of things to a lot of people. He could be cantankerous. It didn't take long to figure out that you did not want to talk politics or the Rapture with Tom, because he had set opinions about both and was not about to be swayed on either.

The one thing I will always remember about Tom was the lengths he would go to for his family in general, but especially his grandchildren. There was nobody in the world quite like Denver, Jesse, Adam and Lauren to Tom.

That's the man I want to be. Rest well, Tom. We'll see you soon.





Monday, June 20, 2016

My Captain

I can't say that I knew Robert Peterson very well.

We were both members of the 1984 DuPont Senior High School Bulldogs football team. He was a co-captain, and I was basically not much more than a dummy holder in practice and just lucky to be there. Yet I have one very distinct memory of Robert for which I will always be grateful.

New to the team, I had gone through some relatively minor hazing incidents. No, I was not physically brutalized or anything close to it. What's the best way to put this? It was just ... stupid stuff that I had to endure. That I know of, Robert was not involved in any way, shape, form or fashion. He certainly didn't seem to be the type.

The head coach asked me to lead the team in a pre-game devotional one Friday night. Who? Me? I was scared to death. Was this going to make things worse?

In the end, I decided I didn't care.

What I said that night is gone, lost to the more than three decades that have passed. What I do know is this. Robert Peterson ... the Robert Peterson, co-captain of the team that I'd wanted so badly to be a part of ... came to me afterward, patted me on the back and said that I'd done a good job. That was good enough for me.

Robert was a defensive tackle, the same position at which I was listed in the program. That meant that I almost never got to play. He was tough and tenacious, a ... well ... bulldog on the football field if ever there was one. If he was ahead of me on the depth chart, I was okay with not getting into many games. He deserved it.

That's Robert, Number 60, third from the left on the second row. I'm Number 73, same row, second from the right, and trying to look tough ... or squinting into the sun, whichever the case might actually have been.

From what I understand, Robert went on to med school after high school and became a physician in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Living life the way we were all supposed to, he was married and had two beautiful daughters.

Then came that awful Facebook post the other day from Kenny Hunt, another member of that long-ago football squad. Robert had lost his life, and if subsequent comments to Kenny's post were accurate, he had become yet another victim to that God-forsaken killer ... cancer.

I completed my first sprint triathlon on May 22. As I crossed the finish line, I had no way of knowing that Robert had just two days to live. I wish I'd been aware of the situation. I would've done the race for him, and at the very least have worn my trusty DuPont Bulldogs T-shirt in his honor.

Although I had not seen Robert since that night in June 1985 that we graduated, his passing has hit me hard. I lost my mom to cancer when she was just 47. Robert was 49.

I'm 48.

So here's the deal. I have an humble request. Let's call it the Robert Peterson Memorial Bulldog Challenge. Do something ... anything ... to take better care of yourself.

Quit smoking.

If you've never done a 5k, commit right now ... this very second ... to doing one. It doesn't matter if you walk every single step and finish dead last. Just do it.

If you've done a 5k, step up to a 10k.

If you've completed a 10k, go for the gold and do a half marathon.

If you've done a half marathon ... forget it. I would never suggest that anyone compete in a full marathon. Uh-uh. No way. No how. So ... if you've done a half ... do a sprint triathlon.

Then try a longer one.

Whatever you choose to do, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and ... do ... not ... quit.

I have no idea if Robert ever ran ... or visited a gym ... or continued to play sports of any sort ... after high school. But the sad and terrible fact is that he no longer can do any of those things, so let's do it for him.

This is for you, my captain.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Staying Started

A strange and wonderful thing happened this morning when I logged on to Facebook.

A friend had tagged me in a post, saying that I'd helped inspire her to start training for a 5k. I don't feel like an inspiration. I'm ... well ... just Rick. I'm just a guy who started walking one day and hasn't stopped.

And here's the thing. If I've said it once, I've said it a million times ... but I very truly and very deeply do believe it.

If I can do it, anybody can.

I don't have any super-secret diet or workout plan that's going to somehow make me a billionaire, but what I do know is that I've learned several things along this journey that might help you in yours.

EXERCISE


*First things first. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and don't stop. Yes, it's going to hurt. Yes, you're going to be sore. But trust me. It hurts a lot worse when you quit.

*Have a fixed distance that you want to walk or run and then go out and do it. If you wind up having to crawl, then so be it. If you're having a heart attack or break a leg, you can stop. Otherwise, keep going.

*This one's easier said than done, and I'm the world's worst about it, but try not to compare yourself to the success anyone else may or may not be having. I read a quote early on in this process that has stuck with me ever since. It said basically that when you're in a race, the competition isn't actually with other runners. It's with that small voice in the back of your head telling you to quit. Ignore what the hardcore super jock pretty boys and girls are doing and keep ... moving ... forward.

*Find someone who will hold you accountable. You can absolutely fool yourself into believing that you're doing all you can when in fact you're not. There will be moments when you hate the person who's keeping your feet to the fire ... you might curse them under your breath ... or even to their face. Yet, suddenly, you'll realize that they've pushed you infinitely further than you ever thought possible.

*Challenge yourself. If you went a mile yesterday, go out and do a mile and a half today.

*Learn to spit in the eye of disappointment. The road you're on is extraordinarily tough, and there will be days when things just don't go very well. That little voice that's telling you that it would be easier to stay on the couch or in your recliner? It's not lying. It would be easier ... but tell the voice to shut the heck up any way and head back out the door for more.

*Do not make laps of a track if at all possible, because every single time you get back to the point at which you started, you'll come up with all kinds of excuses to stop. Concentrate instead on walking or running on sidewalks. That way, you have to keep going to get back home or to your vehicle.

*Rain is your friend when you walk or run, not an excuse to skip it this time around. There are lots of reasons why, really. It's cooler during summer months. You concentrate on the weather and don't think quite so much about what's hurting. Maybe most importantly, you're doing something a lot of other people aren't willing to do. Running with a light snow falling is the absolute best of all!

DIET

*Forget about this diet plan or that. Yes, they can work ... but when it comes down to it, eating better is nothing more than common sense. You know you're not supposed to eat a Wendy's double cheeseburger with biggie fries. You know a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts aren't good for you. You know there are better choices than Reese's Peanut Butter Cup eggs and Oreo cookies.

*When your meal arrives in a restaurant and it's a big portion, do not take a single bite before placing at least half of it in a to-go box. Take that first nibble before doing so, and it's far too easy to keep right on going until the whole thing is gone.

*That tip on learning to cope with disappointment? It applies to your eating habits, too. There will obviously be times when you slip up, and they're literally the fork in the road where you can choose to go one way or the other. Take the road less traveled. It's worth it. I promise.

SAFETY

*If you listen to music, audiobooks, podcasts or anything of the sort when you walk or run on those sidewalks, use the speakers on your smart phone instead of ear buds or head phones. That way, you can hear oncoming traffic, dogs and potential attackers that may or may not be headed your way. Be vigilant.

*Get shoes that are as bright and flashy as possible. Not that you're trying to make a fashion statement, but you do want to be seen by oncoming traffic.

The bottom line is this. The first step of this journey is the easy part. It's what takes place when you're tired ... and sore ... or mad ... or sad ... or disappointed ... that determines whether or not you're going to be successful. Will those kinds of things stop you in your tracks, or do you keep going?

It's all up to you.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dear Younger Me

High-school reunions have a strange way of making you look back on the past.

I've grown up a lot in the three decades since I graduated from DuPont Senior High School in Hermitage, Tennessee, and I've stayed the same in a lot of ways. Given the chance, what would I have done differently?

DuPont Senior High School, Class of 1985
That's a good question, and one I've asked myself probably a little more than what was actually good for me. I worry about stuff that I can't change far too much. And you can't change the past. I know, because I've tried. It doesn't work.

I was in Nashville this past weekend for our thirty-year reunion. On the way to dinner with Joe, Sandi and Jennifer Estep Friday night, I spotted the case for MercyMe's new CD and checked it out. If I wasn't already in a contemplative mood because of the reunion, the title of one of the songs hit me like a sledgehammer.

Dear Younger Me

I had to hear the song. As soon as I did, it was hard to hold back the tears.


Dear younger me 
Where do I start
If I could tell you everything that I have learned so far 
Then you could be
One step ahead
Of all the painful memories still running through my head
I wonder how much different things would be
Dear younger me, dear younger me

What would I have changed first about my high school years? I wouldn't have worried so much about what this person or that thought about me. I would've just been me, and if that wasn't good enough to be one of the cool kids, tough.

There's a line from "Freaks and Geeks," one of my favorite television shows of all time, that perfectly encapsulates my high school career.

She's a cheerleader. You've seen Star Wars twenty-seven times. You do the math.

Yeah. That was me, big time.

I would've worked far, far harder than I did in my classes. I cruised through high school, making grades good enough to pass, but I could've done so much better. I would've majored in journalism in college. I would've sat down with my mom to watch the Christmas tree lights more than I did.

Dear younger me
I cannot decide
Do I give some speech about how to get the most out of your life
Or do I go deep
And try to change
The choices that you'll make 'cause they're choices that made me
Even though I love this crazy life
Sometimes I wish it was a smoother ride
Dear younger me, dear younger me

I would have been the kind of father to my son Richard that I am to Adam and Jesse. To the day I die, that will be the single greatest failure of my life. I love him every bit as much as I do them. I hope he will someday realize that.

If I knew then what I know now
Condemnation would've had no power
My joy, my pain would've never been my worth
If I knew then what I know now
Would've not been hard to figure out 
What I would've changed if I had heard

Dear younger me
It's not your fault
You were never meant to carry this beyond the cross
Dear younger me

The only really important thing I would change about the last twenty years of my life is that I would've fought harder. If you already know with whom, you're family. If you don't, it's none of your business. I wouldn't have covered the Busch Series. I wouldn't have kept to myself so much while on the road with NASCAR. I wouldn't have gone out and partied, but I would've been more outgoing.

Forget about NASCAR. I would be more outgoing, period.

Joe, Sandi and Jennifer would live closer. We'd all own homes on Booger Swamp Road. 

You are holy
You are righteous
You are one of the redeemed
Set apart a brand new heart
You are free indeed

Every mountain, every valley
Through each heartache you will see
Every moment bring you closer
To who you were meant to be 
Dear younger me, dear younger me

The fact is, I am who I am and my life is what it is, nothing more, nothing less. And I'm okay with that.




Sunday, June 21, 2015

Five Years

Five years ago today, I enjoyed one of the greatest opportunities of my life. 

Five years ago today, I was in complete agony. 

Five years ago today, I did a run on board the Space Shuttle motion-base simulator at Johnson Space Center. Alongside me was astronaut Doug Hurley, who had already flown STS-127 and who would go on to fly STS-135, the last Space Shuttle mission ever.

Five years ago today, the safety harnesses of the simulator would not fit because of my oversized belly. I've written and talked about the experience before, so I won't go into the gory details here. The fact is, I was devastated in a way unlike I'd ever been devastated before that day. 

And I'm glad it happened. 
Five years ago, I might have been smiling on the outside, but inside, I was a broken mess.

Since that day, I've walked and ran somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 miles and lost approximately 110 pounds. I would've never thought it possible, and maybe it wasn't. But I did it anyway.

I've lost count of the 5k races I've done, to go along with four ... or is it five? ... 10ks and three half marathons.

I've been chased by dogs ...

Darn near run over by more cars than I really care to count ...

Peed behind an abandoned convenience store ...

Pooped in the woods ...

Run in the snow ...

And rain ...

In 28-degree weather ...

And in the high 80s ...

Run in groups ...

And completely alone ...

Been beaten to a 5k finish line by a woman carrying a purse and wearing a pair of Uggs ...

And finished second in my age group ...

Gone through five pairs of running shoes ...

Been asked for my autograph ...

Smiled as people honked ...

Been flipped off ...

And, on one occasion, did the flipping off ...

Had my compression shorts fall to my knees during a race ...

Amassed one whale of a race T-shirt collection ...

Conquered hills that looked absolutely impossible ...

Along the way, I've given up Oreo cookies, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup eggs and Diet Pepsi. I'm still not skinny. I'll NEVER be skinny. And, to be honest, I've not actually lost any significant amount of  weight in two or three years now. I can kind of eat like I want to, within reason. Here's a line I never thought I'd be able to say.

I'm happy with where I'm at.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Rest of the Story

Fifteen years ago today, I laughed and told Adam Petty that I hated skinny people.

Two hours later, he was gone.

It was the kind of thing you didn't expect to happen at a track like New Hampshire. Talladega? Yes. Daytona? Absolutely. Atlanta? Maybe. But not at New Hampshire. It just wasn't supposed to work out like that.

To this day, the rest of the weekend remains a blur of memories.

The look on Andy Santerre's face.

Calling Jeanie in chambers and once she got to the phone, breaking down in tears.

The memorial service in the scoring stand that afternoon after the garage closed.

Nobody, but nobody, wanting to be there.

Not wanting to write a story more than any other story I've ever not wanted to write, but having to any way.

Until that day, working for Winston Cup Scene had been a giddy dream. Afterward, it became a job. I still loved it, but I experienced first hand what could happen on any given weekend.

I may be wrong, but I believe Jeff Green won the race. He won everything else that year, so it stands to reason ... or was it Tim Fedewa? Honestly, racing that weekend ... just ... didn't ... matter.

That was on a Friday, the worst Friday of my life. The worst Wednesday followed just five days later. I'd just sat down at my desk in Charlotte when the phone rang.

 I heard Jeanie say, "Now, don't freak out, but ..." Immediately, I freaked out. No good can possibly come from a sentence that begins that way. And then ... then she said this ... and the tears are welling in my eyes as I write it.

I found a lump this morning in the shower.

It was straight up 9 a.m., and even though seventy two miles separated Scene's Charlotte office and our home in Hamptonville, I was in our driveway at 9:50 a.m. I lost my mom to breast cancer when she was just forty-seven years old ... and now my wife has found a lump?

My God, no. Please. No.

The rest of the day was a kaleidoscope of bad memories, just like the previous Friday had been. Jeanie had a biopsy done that day at the breast clinic in Winston, but they didn't get enough to tell for sure. Can you possibly come back tomorrow?

We'd been trying for two long and disappointing years to have a child, and had an appointment scheduled for the "baby doctor" the next day, on Thursday. We'd been there before, but nothing had happened. Jeanie had always been on edge walking into the office, wanting so desperately for it to happen. I was on edge, too, because I wanted it for her.

Jeanie called and told the baby doctor's office what was happening, to see what we could possibly work out. Incredibly, they said they'd stay open late, just to work us in. So Thursday, Jeanie had the second biopsy ... it was benign, hallelujah of all hallelujahs!

Afterward, we flew over to the baby doctor's office, rolled in on two wheels and almost literally ran inside. And that was the day two little boys were conceived, less than a week after the tragedy at New Hampshire.
Adam Houston, wearing his namesake's cap.
We named Adam in memory of Adam Petty, and it's funny today to see just how much they're alike. Neither ever met a stranger. Both had a personality as big as all outdoors. Adam Petty was evidently a handful as a child, and Adam Houston's mouth sometimes has a way of getting him into trouble. Both had good hearts.

I miss Adam Petty, but in a lot of ways, he's still with us. There's the Victory Junction Gang Camp, of course. And there's a fourteen-year-old boy who lives at my house, carrying on the tradition of living large every day of his life.






Wednesday, February 18, 2015

'Like It Just Happened Yesterday'

The weather broke brightly and beautifully over Daytona International Speedway on the morning of Feb. 18, 2001.

In the hours leading up to the 43rd edition of the Daytona 500, an event that had long been known as the sport’s biggest and most important race, the chamber-of-commerce sunshine lent itself to a mood that was beginning to once again, very slowly, creep toward a cautious sense of  optimism. Another season was about to start, and this would surely have to be a better year than the previous one had been.

All three of NASCAR’s top-drawer touring divisions experienced agonizing fatal accidents in the year 2000. First came the loss of Adam Petty during a May Busch Series practice session at New Hampshire. There was Kenny Irwin’s Winston Cup mishap at the same track, same turn, just a couple of months later. Finally, Tony Roper’s crash during a Craftsman Truck Series event at Texas in October was the final tragedy before the campaign's sad and none-too-soon end.

That was then. This was a whole new deal, a fresh start. Those involved in the three-ring circus known as NASCAR had regained an expectant spring in their step as they made their way this way and that on the morning of the season opener. Every team in the garage had a shot at making a run at the championship. Every driver had a chance to be become the stuff of legend in that afternoon’s race. How else would you explain Daytona 500 Cinderella stories like Tiny Lund in 1963, Pete Hamilton in 1970 or Derrike Cope twenty years after that?

Cope.

More than a decade later, the memory probably still stung Dale Earnhardt. He was leading easily on the last blamed lap when a cut tire handed the victory to Cope, a virtual unknown. That it was still so raw an emotion, even after Earnhardt finally did win his first Daytona 500 in 1998, was testament to just how important each and every edition of the event had become.

That 1990 Daytona 500 made history. Then again, every Daytona 500 made history. Win this race and it would be remembered forever.

PRE-RACE

Three months later, Ward Burton was still ticked off.

At Homestead the year before, Earnhardt kicked Burton and Ricky Rudd into separate accidents. Rudd and Earnhardt had a history of run-ins, so really, Homestead was just another chapter in a long-running … if you want to call it a feud, then so be it. Certainly, Burton had mixed it up with Earnhardt on a number of occasions since coming onto the scene full time in 1994. Yet most of their dust-ups could ultimately be chalked up as “one of them racin’ deals.”

But not Homestead. Not this time.

“I’ve never said this on an interview before, but Dale had wrecked me because he was frustrated at Homestead,” Burton remembered. “I was still quite perturbed with Dale at Daytona, and he knew it.”

Just before they were presented to the teeming crowd, Burton issued a subtle reminder to Earnhardt that all had not been forgotten.

“I can remember getting ready to get introduced,” Burton continued. “He was still waiting, and I purposely hit his shoulder with my shoulder. I felt like he’d really done me dirty. I’ve always felt kinda remorseful for that. But at the time and in the heat of the battle, the way you handled Dale Earnhardt was really on the race track. But I was just letting him know before the race started that I still had not forgotten it.”

Burton’s Bill Davis Racing Dodge was on the outside of the starting grid’s fifth row in 10th place, while Earnhardt started seventh on the inside of the row just ahead of the Virginian. To this day, the image of Dale and Teresa Earnhardt saying what would turn out to be their final goodbyes is firmly etched in Burton’s memory.

“When my wife [Tabitha] was giving me hugs as I was getting in the car, and I can remember vividly [Earnhardt] giving Teresa a last kiss,” Burton said. “Dale … he didn’t seem very comfortable at that moment. I don’t know why. I guess we’ve all got a few butterflies getting ready to start that race, because we know what can happen.”

Andy Houston qualified ninth, lining him up directly behind Earnhardt. Three days before, Houston finished fourth in the first of Daytona’s two qualifying races, a spot back of Earnhardt. On pit road just before the 500, the seven-time Winston Cup champion took the opportunity to poke some fun at the young man he called his “cousin in law.”

Houston’s father, legendary Busch Series driver Tommy Houston, and Teresa Earnhardt’s father, Hal, are brothers.

“Early in the qualifier, Dale got into the back of me and got me all sideways up through the middle of turns three and four,” Houston said. “I thought I was gonna crash. I mean, I was way out of control. Well, when we got down there for pre-race for the 500, he come up and grabbed me around the neck like he always does and kinda squeezes you half to death.

“He said, ‘You were bad out of shape in that qualifying race, wasn’t you?!?’ I said, ‘Yeah, because you had my back wheels off the ground.’ He kind of snickered a little bit, and said, ‘Yeah … I knew you could handle it.’ I told him, ‘You weren’t the one in there swattin’ at that steering wheel.’ We kinda laughed about it for a few minutes.”

Moments later, Earnhardt, Burton, Houston and 40 other drivers climbed into their cars, ready for battle. Forty-two of them would climb back out.

THE BROADCASTER

Up in the television broadcast booth, Darrell Waltrip was struggling to get used to his unfamiliar surroundings.

A Daytona 500 was about to take place without ol’ D.W. in the field. Not since way back in 1972, a full 29 years previous, had that last happened. What was he supposed to do? Where was his family supposed to go? There was no team to hang out with in the garage and no pit stall to watch the race from once it started. For the first time in his and wife Stevie's married life and for the first time in the lives of their daughters Jessica and Sarah, Waltrip was not going to be behind the wheel of a race car.

Waltrip, the self-assured and, yes, at times, very cocky race car driver was now a fish out of water.

“I felt really lost,” Waltrip admitted. “I didn’t feel too bad the early part of Speedweeks. I had a lot to do, production meetings. … But then I’m doing a pre-race show when everybody else is doing driver introductions. I was just doing things I’d never done before. It was all new to me.

“It was exciting to be doing something new and different, but it was also sad to think that I had turned a page. I wasn’t gonna be on pit road any more. I wasn’t gonna put my helmet on and get in the car like I’d done my whole life. I was gonna put a suit and a tie on and go stand in a TV booth. It was the end of one long, long story and then, of course, the start of a new one.”

Stevie Waltrip was also learning to cope with a new reality. For quite some time, she had shared Bible passages with Earnhardt that he would in turn tape to the dashboard of his race car. Should she still do so? She wasn’t going to be at every race and she felt a little out of place making her way to pit road without her husband, but they both knew how much the exchange had come to mean to Earnhardt.

Dale Earnhardt had been in more on-track incidents with Darrell Waltrip than either one of them could possibly have remembered. Yet in 1998, when Waltrip’s career was at an all-time low, he was hired by Dale Earnhardt Inc. to fill in for several races early in the year. It seemed to re-kindle a fire within the three-time Winston Cup champion, something that he and his wife would never forget.

She delivered the Scripture to Earnhardt on pit road, just before the race. The passage was from the 18th chapter of Proverbs, 10th verse.

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.

THE POLE SITTER 

Few drivers have ever been more closely associated with a manufacturer than Bill Elliott was with Ford in the 1980s and ‘90s. For legions of his fans who had voted him the sport’s most popular driver 15 times to that point, Elliott was Ford Motor Co. in NASCAR. The Thunderbird that he once drove was not so much a race car as it was a dang bullet.

Twice, he won the Daytona 500. That placed the red-headed country boy amongst NASCAR’s elite, to be sure, but he’d also taken his beautiful red, white and gold trimmed Ford from almost two laps down under green to win at Talladega in that magical season of 1985. Two years later, he laid down a qualifying speed of 212.809 mph at the same track. It’s a record that will never be approached, much less topped.

Elliott, Ford. Ford, Elliott. For what seemed like forever, no other combination seemed as rock-solid certain. Yet there Elliott was, on the pole for the 2001 Daytona 500 … in a Dodge, of all things, that was owned by Ray Evernham.

Dodge was making a splashy return to NASCAR after an absence of more than 20 years, and one of the focal points of its strategy was luring Evernham away from his own legendary gig as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports. For the brand-new organization, to sit on the inside of the front row was huge.

“We put a lot of effort into it,” Elliott said. “Most of the guys we had were very, very good at that sort of stuff. It was important for a lot of us. I’d made a switch from Ford to Dodge, and Dodge kinda stuck their neck out there with Ray. Ray moved over, started his own deal and worked hard. A lot of guys put a lot of effort into it, and it all worked out.”

The green flag was dropped by NFL legend Terry Bradshaw, who’d been chauffeured around the track the night before by Earnhardt. Elliott held onto the point for all of one lap before he was swallowed up by Sterling Marlin, also in a Dodge, this one fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Although he ran a very solid, very Bill Elliott-like race, he did not lead again the rest of the afternoon.

“I just kind of hung out, rode around, bided my time and saved my stuff,” Elliott remembered.

THE BIG ONE

All went well for Burton for more than three-quarters of the race. Nine times, he jockeyed himself into the lead. In all, Burton was at the front of the field for a total of 53 laps, 14 more than Marlin.

For all that effort, Burton walked away with nothing more than a wadded-up race car. On the 174th tour around Daytona’s 2.5-mile layout, almost within shouting distance of the end of the 200 lapper, he was caught up in the genesis of a multi-car wreck on the backstretch. It was The Big One, with half the field the remaining field – 19 cars – sustaining damage. Tony Stewart flipped wildly in the melee, at one point landing squarely on the windshield of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte.

“It was going how a Daytona 500 might go,” Labonte said. “One time, you’re up front and then in the middle, in the back and in between. We situated ourselves, just making laps. I don’t remember what position we were in, but we were gonna be far enough back that if they had a wreck, we were gonna miss it.”

The plan didn’t work out so well. Not for Labonte, who entered the 2001 Daytona 500 as the defending Winston Cup champion, and not for many other teams.

“Lo and behold, Stewart’s upside down, flipping,” Labonte continued. “I just got landed upon. There’s not a lot of time to react. There’s a lot of smoke. There’s a lot of decisions that have to be made on gut instinct in that moment. There’s a lot of other things out of your control. The guy that was there is no longer there, and oh, by the way, there’s three more that’s got involved in a split second.”

A decade later, Burton’s recall of the incident is instantaneous. There is no need to sift through the haze of ten years’ worth of memories. This one is right there at the forefront.

“I can tell you exactly what happened,” Burton added. “I know it like it just happened yesterday. We’d had a green-flag stop, and we came out running fourth or fifth. I was sucking up to the 20 car, which was Tony Stewart, in the middle of turns one and two. I was going to the outside of Tony … that’s just how strong my car was.

“Robby Gordon had not been in the picture all day. He hit me one time in the right rear … I was a little crossed up, but was gonna save it. He hit me again, and then I was going toward the pond [Lake Lloyd in the Daytona infield]. My left front hit Tony’s right rear, and that’s what caused the whole melee.”

It’s what Burton says next that gives one pause to consider the “what ifs.” Burton doesn’t blame himself. He doesn’t blame Gordon for getting into him. There’s no blame whatsoever … only a monstrous “what if.”

“I know if that incident hadn’t happened, Dale Earnhardt would not have been killed that day,” Burton said. “That set the chain of the rest of the events [in motion] … who was up there and who wasn’t to have the situation going on later in the race. I say that in a literal way, but not blaming an individual for Dale’s death. But that moment, when the wreck started on the backstretch, is what created the event later in the day.”

The race was red-flagged for 16 minutes and 25 seconds as crews cleared battered car after battered car from the backstretch accident site. Burton came back from the crushing disappointment of 2001 to win the Daytona 500 the very next year.

THE FINISH

Michael Waltrip first took control over the 2001 Daytona 500 just after the halfway point, when Burton gave up the point during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. The younger Waltrip, winless in the first 462 starts of his Cup career, went back to the top of the leaderboard when he wrestled the top spot away from DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 167.

Either Waltrip, Earnhardt Jr. or a third DEI driver, Steve Park, were at the front until Marlin broke the hold for a single circuit, lap 182. The senior Earnhardt led what would unimaginably be the last circuit of his storied career on lap 183. It was Michael Waltrip’s race to win or lose thereafter.

Those last laps were something to see, both in person and on television. Darrell Waltrip’s excitement over his younger brother’s run was building by the moment … this was very nearly as good as driving.

“One of the things I’ve really struggled with, even 10 years later, is that I’m still a race fan,” Darrell Waltrip said. “I still get excited. I love the action on the track. It’s been hard, because you have your brother out there and he’s about to win the Daytona 500. Here I am, I’m his brother, I’m doing the telecast, millions of people are watching and I’m pulling for my brother. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but there are people who think you should not show any favoritism.

“I was excited. I just can’t hold back my emotion, and that’s the way I was in that situation with my brother. I knew how that was going to be for him. Dale had taken a chance on Michael to put him in that car, because Dale knew that he could get the job done. I was just so proud of my brother and for what Dale had done with that team. It was just snowballing. It was hard to hold back. As the race wound down those last few laps, it became more and more clear to me that Michael was going to win. I let it all hang out, and I’m not sorry for it. I’d do it again.”

Then came that last forsaken, unspeakable lap.

No other single circuit in the history of NASCAR has been so closely dissected as that afternoon’s final 2 ½ miles. As they flashed under the white flag, Michael Waltrip led the Earnhardts, Junior and Senior, in that order. Marlin and Ken Schrader were next in line, the five cars single file for a moment.

Veterans Marlin and Schrader had made runs on Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3 Chevrolet in the closing miles, Marlin ducking well below the yellow line going into turn one at one point and Schrader peeking to the high side. None of their moves worked, but they had to give it one last shot.

“Coming to the white, I’d been all over Dale trying to get by,” Marlin said. “I kinda let off a little bit going down into turn one to get a run at him, and I got under him coming off two. Schrader was with me, and I said, ‘Well, we’re probably gonna run third. I can’t get to Michael and Dale Jr.’ Schrader was pushing me, and all of a sudden, Schrader disappeared. I looked in my mirror and said, ‘Where’d he go?!?”

All bets were off. Schrader left Marlin’s draft to grab what he could for himself on the very last lap.

“I don’t remember s*** about [the race in general], but I remember the end,” Schrader said. “We came off turn two, and I thought, ‘We’ve got a chance to run third,’ and then all Hell broke loose.”

That it did. Schrader went to the high side on the backstretch, and very nearly got around the elder Earnhardt, who tried to dart to the inside in an attempt to block Marlin’s progress. With absolutely no help up top, Schrader was all but defenseless. But, really, he’d had no other choice than to go where he did.

“Going down the backstraightaway, I went up to the top because they werenotgonnagetunderDale,” said Schrader, his voice thick with emphasis. “It’s just not gonna happen. He ain’t gonna let us get under him. That’s why I went around Dale. My thinking was, ‘OK, once we get down to turn three, somebody’s gonna realize that we’re not all getting underneath Dale. They’ll come to the high side, and I’ll already be there.’”

Some would later insist that Earnhardt was blocking in order to help the two cars ahead of him that he just so happened to own, one of them driven by his own son. It made for a good story, regardless of whether or not it was actually the case.

“I figured that was no different than any other time he went down a straightaway,” Schrader said matter-of-factly. “The race was decided already. No one was gonna beat those two guys [Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr.]. The race was decided, but I believe if [Earnhardt] had been [in position to do so], he’d have done anything he could on the last lap to beat ‘em. But right there when everything happened, he was worried about finishing third versus fourth or fifth.”

The fuse was lit going into the third turn as Earnhardt tried to hold off the rest of the field. Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr.  were free and clear to decide the checkered flag between them, while everyone else closed into what seemed like a single hurtling mass of furious energy.

“When we got to turn three, Dale was crowding me down and I guess Schrader was crowding him down to where we got three wide,” Marlin continued. “It just slowed us down 10 miles an hour, and here come the whole field, three wide behind us.”

The traffic jam in the final turn of the final lap included Earnhardt a nose or so ahead of the pack in the middle with Rusty Wallace on his rear bumper. Marlin was to the inside of Earnhardt and Schrader to the outside. In all, no less than eight cars were separated by a split second … less than that, even.

“When we drove off into [turn] three, Sterling had gotten under Dale,” Elliott said. “I mean, we were all right there together … I mean, we were all right there, just all over each other. Dale tried to root down back in front of him.”

Marlin’s right front made contact in the scramble with the left rear of Earnhardt’s car, shooting it up toward the wall and directly into Schrader’s path. Earnhardt’s right front slammed hard into the outside retaining wall. Many other accidents in many other races had appeared far more serious – Stewart’s just a few laps earlier, for instance.

“Rusty got pretty close to Dale,” Marlin said. “That looked like it got Dale loose. Dale kinda come down, crowded me down, got into me. The whole thing started from there.”

As Schrader discusses it, he pulls up a YouTube clip of the accident.

“I’m a foot or two away from him,” described Schrader, almost as if he were a disassociated spectator. “I was right there. When he came up, he just took us with him. My front bumper was in the middle of his door when he came up. I’m in the middle of the race track, and Rusty and Sterling are inside us. Everybody’s just in that pile, you know?”

Schrader first wound up pinned against the wall by the right side of Earnhardt’s car, and the two remained in contact as they slid to a stop on the apron of turn four. The world NASCAR once knew had ended.

This story was first posted on NASCAR.COM February 10, 2011.