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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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