February 18, 2001: the day that the entire sport of NASCAR stood still.
It’s been almost 20 years to the day since we lost one of the greatest sportsmen this world has ever known. Dale Earnhardt changed the sport of NASCAR forever, and after he emerged as a star, he never looked back. Earnhardt began his career at Charlette Motor Speedway in 1975. It ended abruptly in probably the most well-known accident of all time, on that sad Sunday afternoon in 2001.
Dale Earnhardt holds the record for most NASCAR Cup Championships (tied with Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty). Earnhardt was a true showman. His nickname “The Intimidator” needs no explanation. Earnhardt had no fear on the track. If he knew there was a way to win, even if it meant wrecking his opponent, he was going to make it happen. Perhaps nobody knew this better than Hendrick Motorsports’ Terry Labonte.
Labonte got spun out by Earnhardt on the final lap of 1999’s Bristol Race. Labonte passed Earnhardt going into the final lap and Earnhardt gave him a bump to let him know he was there, and Labonte spun out. This was one of the most memorable races of all time. In a later interview, Labonte said that after the race he was going to T-Bone Earnhardt when he came around the straightaway. He would have done it too if had he not torn the reverse gear out of the car attempting to do so. Not everyone that raced against Earnhardt liked him, but everyone respected the driver that he was.
At that horrific Daytona race now known as “Black Sunday”, it seemed like the world was standing still. Prior to the crash, teammate Michael Waltrip was in the lead with Dale Jr. in second. Earnhardt was in third blocking for Michael and his son. Going into the final lap of the 500, Earnhardt was hit into the wall by Sterling Marlin in what looked like a routine wreck. This routine wreck turned out to be not routine at all. Longtime friend Ken Schrader was involved in the wreck.
After Schrader exited his car, he went to see if Dale was okay. It was quickly that he realized Dale was in fact not okay and had to be rushed to Halifax Medical Center.
He was pronounced dead at 5:16 pm.
It was later found out that Earnhardt died upon impact from head trauma and a skull fracture. Earnhardt was one of the very few drivers left that didn’t wear face shields when driving. This may have been a cause of death.
Michael Waltrip went on to win the race. After nearly 16 years of racing, this was Waltrip’s first win and he was so excited to be able to stand in Victory Lane with teammate and friend Dale, but Dale never showed up.
In a documentary about Waltrip’s life, he talked about that in a matter of seconds, that day went from being the best day of his life to the worst. Waltrip immediately knew not seeing Dale in Victory Lane that something was wrong. It was just much worse than what anyone could have ever imagined.
Where Things Stand Today
Fast forward to the Daytona 500, 20 years after the Death of Earnhardt, and things are so different now. The sport kept going, but the energy was just never the same. After talking with lots of people that had watched the race and lived and died for Earnhardt, they say the same.
Things within NASCAR have changed as well. Safety regulations became an absolute must in the industry. Mandates were made for all drivers to use head-and-neck restraints while driving. Barriers at race tracks were changed and made safer after Earnhardt’s crash.
Inspection rules on seats and seat belts happened much more frequently. Cars also began having roof escapes for drivers who were in bad accidents. Between 1989 and the death of Dale Earnhardt. There were nine drivers killed in racing accidents in the Cup series. There have not been any Cup Series deaths since the death of Dale Earnhardt. His death changed the industry and made it safer. No one ever wanted to see what happened to Earnhardt happen to anyone else.
In the 2020 Daytona 500, driver Ryan Newman was involved in an accident that was one of the worst in recent years. Newman not only went airborne but was hit head-on by another driver immediately after. Had safety regulations not been what they are today, Newman very well may have died.
Dale Earnhardt had a legacy like no other. I would honestly say that Dale Earnhardt was bigger than NASCAR itself. Viewership in NASCAR has seen a major fall since the death of Earnhardt.
Many fans like myself still watched as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was all that was left of his father. After the retirement of Dale Jr., NASCAR viewership dropped lower than it has in over 40 years. Dale Earnhardt was one of the greatest athletes that ever lived.
Even if you don’t know NASCAR, you know Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt’s legacy will live on forever.
When you’re watching the race this weekend and think about Dale, don’t be sad. Just remember. “Dale ain’t dead, he’s just a lap ahead”.