The safety revolution that began in the 1960s came full circle, but not before NASCAR lost a legend. On Feb. 18, 2001, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt perished when his car slammed into the Turn 4 wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500. He was the fourth driver to die in a nine-month span, and the outcry from fans spurred a safety study that changed the sport. NASCAR would soon mandate that all drivers wear head-and-neck support (HANS) devices and would require all oval tracks to install steel and foam energy reduction (SAFER) barriers. In '07 NASCAR introduced the Car of Tomorrow, which featured several more subtle changes designed to protect the driver. To date, the Intimidator's death is the last in a Cup race.
Luckily for fans, NASCAR's emphasis on safety has had little effect on its compelling style of racing. With the '04 debut of the Chase, a 10-race postseason, the circuit has witnessed some of the most exciting Cup battles in years. Kurt Busch won the first Chase by just eight points, and no title has been decided by more than 77. In addition to thrilling fans, the exciting racing has begun to attract the notice of drivers from other racing series. In '07 former Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya made the jump from Formula One to NASCAR, and this year he will be joined by another Indy star, Dario Franchitti. The little racing series begun on the beach at Daytona has become, arguably, the world's premier motor sports circuit.