Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500, but even as the green flag flies for this year's race and a new Sprint Cup season, his legacy is felt throughout the sport—and in the lives of three men in particular
This is an article from the Feb. 21, 2011 issue
Every day, on the grainy film of Michael Waltrip's memory, the images from that afternoon a decade ago still flicker, no matter how hard he tries to block them out. They always unspool the same way: He is back at Daytona in 2001, back in Victory Lane under a blue sky, celebrating the first win of his Cup career, when driver Ken Schrader approaches. Waltrip notices something terrible in his friend's expression. Schrader had been the first person to reach Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt crashed into the wall at more than 160 mph on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on that Sunday 10 years ago this week, and Schrader saw the horrifying result: Earnhardt, slumped in his driver's seat with a severe fracture at the base of his skull, already dead.
"It's not good," Schrader told Waltrip, who was driving for Earnhardt's team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI). "I think Dale's hurt."
Dale's hurt. No two words in the history of stock car racing have been freighted with greater significance. At the time of his death the 49-year-old Earnhardt was a seven-time Cup champion—tying him with Richard Petty for most career titles—a one-man industry who at the time of his death had a record $42 million in career earnings and was making millions more in endorsements, and the heart and soul of NASCAR, the rare sports icon whom beer-drinking, blue-jean-wearing fans embraced as one of their own. Hours after his death, makeshift vigils sprang up all around Daytona, at DEI headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., and at other tracks around the South, where thousands of fans held candles in the darkness and quietly shared memories of the life and times of the Intimidator.
In the days that followed it would be made clear, for the first time, that NASCAR was no longer a strictly Southern phenomena. Earnhardt's death led newscasts in markets as distant as California, North Dakota and New York City, where the news was also carried on the front page of The New York Times. On the day of Earnhardt's funeral, in his hometown of Kannapolis, N.C., U2 took the stage in Los Angeles to perform at the Grammys. The band is from Dublin, a world away from the tiny garage where Earnhardt prepared cars as a teenager to race for grocery money, but U2's guitarist, The Edge, strode onto the stage wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Earnhardt's number 3.
Yes, millions mourned the loss of the legend. And 10 years after Earnhardt was laid to rest following a private ceremony in his hometown, the sense of loss remains, even as his presence still looms over the sport. Earnhardt's death sparked a revolution in racing safety—"I can pretty much guarantee you that I wouldn't be alive today if not for the advancements that came about because of Earnhardt's death," says driver Greg Biffle—as SAFER barriers, the Car of Tomorrow, and head-and-neck restraining devices all were implemented or mandated in the wake of his crash. Ten years after that shattering instant at Daytona, his popularity hasn't waned; over the last eight years more than $7.4 million in Earnhardt merchandise has been sold at the NASCAR.com superstore alone. Earnhardt was the first driver to aggressively market himself as a brand, and now nearly every driver in NASCAR follows his model. But as big an influence as Earnhardt has been on the entire sport, his legacy is most pronounced and profound in the lives of these three men—an owner, a driver and a son.
THE OWNER: MICHAEL WALTRIP
Everything you see in this building is the result of Dale," says Michael Waltrip, sitting in his second-floor corner office in Cornelius, N.C., at Michael Waltrip Racing, which employs 240 people and will have two drivers competing in the Cup series this season—David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. "I think about Dale and that moment I saw Schrader in Victory Lane every day. So quickly the best day of my life turned into the worst day."
If not for Earnhardt, Waltrip, 47, most likely would have been out of the Cup series in 2001, and probably out of the sport today. He was riding a 462-race winless streak heading into that season—the longest among active drivers in NASCAR at the time—but Earnhardt hired him a few months before the 500 to drive for DEI, the racing team he founded in 1980, even as he continued to drive for Richard Childress Racing. Earnhardt hired Waltrip for one primary reason: He believed that Waltrip, who had always shown a knack for finding and riding the aerodynamic draft at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, could win the Great American Race. And he did, in 2001 and again in '03, driving for DEI. "The chances of me getting into the Hall of Fame as a racer are slim to none," says Waltrip, who has four Cup wins in 763 starts and will attempt to qualify for a few events this season, including Sunday's 500. "But as an owner I have a chance to do something special, mostly because I learned a lot of secrets from Dale."
In building his race team, which is backed by Toyota and began competing full time in the Cup Series in 2007, Waltrip hired about 20 former DEI employees to fill key positions, including his general manager, Ty Norris, who was one of Earnhardt's first hires at DEI. Waltrip's top driver this season most likely will be Truex, who began his Cup career at DEI. To Waltrip, this means Truex "comes from the family."
"It felt like coming home when I signed with Michael in 2009," says the 30-year-old Truex, who finished 22nd in the standings last season. "At DEI the people there took so much pride in working for Dale. I see that same sense of pride here at MWR, almost like we're carrying on for him."
Waltrip stopped racing full time after the '09 season, concentrating instead on transforming MWR into a title-contending operation. It's not there yet—the team has just two wins in the last two years—but MWR is widely regarded in the garage as an up-and-comer in the sport. "This year I'm very confident that one of our drivers will get into the Chase," Waltrip says. "And when that happens, I'll smile because Dale will have played a part in that."
For four months last year Waltrip collaborated with writer Ellis Henican on a book detailing the day Earnhardt died. (Last week In the Blink of an Eye was No. 11 on The New York Times best-seller list.) Lying on a couch in his office with a glass of red wine in his hands, Waltrip would talk deep into the night as Henican pecked away at his keyboard. "For a long time I believed that if you ignored the pain it would go away," Waltrip says. "Well it didn't. As hard as it was, I needed to deal with it." These were as much therapy sessions for Waltrip as writing marathons, because talking about the day everything changed for him—and for NASCAR—helped him overcome a feeling that haunted him ever since he saw Schrader in Victory Lane: guilt.
Over the last several laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt rode around the 2.5-mile track in third place while two of the cars he owned ran in first (driven by Waltrip) and second (driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr.). Watching a replay of the last five laps on a computer screen in his office on a recent rainy morning, Waltrip pointed out how Earnhardt deftly blocked other cars from making a charge at his two DEI drivers in the closing laps. Yet Waltrip now believes, after closely studying the final lap, that Earnhardt wasn't blocking when his number 3 Chevy wiggled slightly as Sterling Marlin closed from behind, veered left toward the lower portion of the track, took an abrupt right, got hit on the passenger side by Schrader, then barreled into the wall nearly head-on.
"Dale was just trying to get third," Waltrip says. "Maybe he was thinking that he could get a run on everyone coming out of Turn 4. But the race was over. Junior and I had pulled away, so there was no need to block. That always hurt me when people said he was blocking for me, because it almost felt like it was my fault that he died. But I don't think that anymore. I really don't. He died racing, simple as that."
THE DRIVER: KEVIN HARVICK
There isn't one aspect of my life that Dale Sr. doesn't continue to influence today," says Kevin Harvick. "There's absolutely nothing in my life that didn't change the day he passed away."
Harvick watched the 2001 Daytona 500 in the living room of his home in Winston-Salem, N.C. As soon as the race ended, he turned off the television, believing that Earnhardt would walk away from the wreck, which looked relatively innocuous compared with other harrowing crashes Earnhardt had survived. Harvick, then 25, was competing full time in the Busch (now called Nationwide) Series for owner Richard Childress and aspired to eventually race at the Cup level. Childress believed Harvick was still a year away from being ready to be Earnhardt's teammate at RCR, but those plans quickly changed. Three days after Earnhardt's death, Harvick was watching television with his fiancée, DeLana, when the phone rang. It was Childress. "Can you come to the shop right now?" he asked. "We've got to talk."
Harvick immediately drove five miles in the night to the RCR headquarters. He stepped into Childress's office. Kevin Hamlin, a former crew chief for Earnhardt, sat in a chair sipping Jack Daniel's while Childress was behind his desk. "We want you to drive the car," Childress said, referring to Earnhardt's now vacant seat. "If you say yes, your life is going to change dramatically."
Harvick quickly agreed, and two days later at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, he walked into a press tent and was immediately overwhelmed by hundreds of flashbulbs popping in his face. Before this moment Harvick, who had yet to make a single start in the Cup series, had never talked to more than a handful of reporters; now he sat before hundreds for a press conference that was broadcast live on national television. "I didn't know Dale well, but my devastation came from seeing everyone else's devastation on that team," Harvick says today. "I honestly didn't know what the hell I was doing."
With Earnhardt's pit crew working on the now number 29 Chevy (Earnhardt's number 3 hasn't been used again in the Cup series), Harvick finished 14th at Rockingham. Two days later he and DeLana were married at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas—"It was nice to see some guys on the team actually smiling at our reception," Harvick says—and 11 days after that he drove Earnhardt's old car, now painted white, to Victory Lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And just like that, Harvick, who weeks earlier could walk through the grandstands at any track in America and go unrecognized, inherited a large portion of Earnhardt's massive fan base, most of whom still back him today.
But Harvick's connection to Earnhardt runs deeper than the car. No current driver in NASCAR is as similar to Earnhardt in driving style (read: possessing a propensity to shove cars out of the way) or ability to glibly cut down an opponent with a few caustic words as Harvick is. "I let people draw their own conclusions about my similarities to Dale Sr.," Harvick says, smiling mischievously, as he sits in a Mexican restaurant in Charlotte. "I just try to be myself. But I will tell you this: I will not back down to anyone."
Last season Harvick scored more points than any other driver over the course of the 36-race season, but after the 10-race Chase he wound up third in the final standings behind Cup winner Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Harvick dominated the restrictor-plate races—just as Earnhardt used to—by winning two of the four plate events, including the July race at Daytona. "I always like my chances at Daytona," Harvick says. "And for this chapter to close correctly, either myself or Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to win this 500."
THE SON: DALE EARNHARDT JR.
It was August 2000 and Dale Earnhardt Jr., then 25 and seemingly without a care in the world, was behind the wheel of his 1971 cherry-red Corvette convertible, rolling down Highway 136 outside of Mooresville, N.C. He had just chatted with his father at the DEI headquarters, and as he cruised through the Carolina countryside, he shared a confession with his passenger. "The key to all the success I've had is my dad," said Little E, who was a rookie in the Cup series and a two-time Busch Series champion. "He taught me how to drive, how to live with integrity and how to be a man."
Six months after Junior uttered those words, his dad was gone. "After that happened I never wanted to see another racetrack or another race car again," Earnhardt says. "But after a week I got to thinking, 'What am I going to do?' My dad gave me this opportunity."
In the last few weeks Earnhardt has been asked by several print reporters to discuss the anniversary, but he's turned them down, politely sending a message through his p.r. people that it would be too hard. A decade has passed, but the pain has scarcely dulled. "We don't spend a lot of time talking about Dad or sharing stories about him," says Kelley Earnhardt, Dale's sister. "We don't get into our emotions much. That's just who we are."
Can you blame Earnhardt, though, for not wanting to dig deep on the subject? Today the shadow of the father—and the popularity of that name—still looms large over the son. Consider: There are scores of drivers, owners and even NASCAR officials who will tell you that the fastest way for NASCAR to reverse its tumbling TV ratings and cure its attendance woes would be for Earnhardt, voted the most popular driver in NASCAR the last eight years straight, to win races and consistently run in the front of the field. Wouldn't that keep you up at night, knowing that many people think—fairly or not—that the fortunes of an entire sport depend on your performance, as if you were some sort of savior in a firesuit? "I may have this name, but I never thought of myself being like my father," Earnhardt told SI last year. "He was just so big, man, larger than life. It's a damn tough act to follow, if you know what I mean."
Yes, it has been. Though he has 18 career wins in the Cup series, which ties him for ninth most among active drivers, Earnhardt has reached Victory Lane just once in his last 170 starts, a funk that stretches back to May 2006. He admits he has heard the "You're not your father" barbs from fans, and these remarks cut deep into the sensitive, often shy 36-year-old. "Dale Jr. has never gotten a fair shake from the start because, guess what, he's not his father," says Harvick. "He was always supposed to have been someone else. The pressure he's under is unreal."
Rick Hendrick feels that pressure. Ever since Hendrick signed Earnhardt to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in 2007, the owner has repeatedly said his No. 1 priority is to make Junior into a championship contender. Yet even though Hendrick has won the last five Cup championships with driver Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt has floundered, failing to finish in the top 20 in points the last two years. In his boldest move to date with Earnhardt, Hendrick shook up his organization this off-season in the hope of revitalizing Junior's career. Beginning at Daytona, Earnhardt's new crew chief will be Steve Letarte, who has been atop Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon's pit box for the last five seasons. Perhaps more significant, Earnhardt's team will now be housed under the same roof as Johnson's number 48 crew, which means that each weekend Earnhardt and Letarte will know precisely the setup and the strategy of the most dominant race team in NASCAR history.
"Sometimes it's difficult to get Dale to talk over the radio when things aren't going well during a race," says Lance McGrew, who was Earnhardt's crew chief last year and this season will be teamed with Mark Martin. "He can lose focus when he has things on his mind or when he gets frustrated. But I think this change will help him. Steve can talk his way through any problem, and their communication is going to be key. But man, that's a lot of pressure they're going to deal with. Really, it's unfair. Junior can't escape the comparisons to his dad. It's with him all the time."
In November, moments before the final race of the 2010 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Earnhardt leaned against his number 88 Chevy on pit road. He would finish the season 21st in points, but as he squinted into the bright South Florida sunshine, he was already thinking about the promise of a new season—this season. "We're going to get this thing turned around," he said. "We have no other choice. It's going to happen. Man, it has to happen."
The words were startling, not because he was making a prediction, but because of this: For the first time in a long, long time, the son—full of confidence, full of Earnhardt swagger—sounded a hell of a lot like his old man.
This Sunday at Daytona, the engines will fire for another season of racing. The air will be full of hope and expectation: Can Johnson win a sixth straight title? Can Hamlin fulfill his immense promise? Will one or more young stars emerge to challenge the old guard? But even as NASCAR roars off into the future, memories from a decade before will hang over the speedway. The legacy of Dale Earnhardt will be everywhere—in the design of the cars, in the SAFER walls they race past, in the HANS devices worn by the drivers and, of course, in the thousands of fans who will stand on Lap 3 and hold up three fingers in silent tribute—but nowhere more than down on the track, as it has for the past 10 years, riding along with three men.
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What's new in NASCAR this year? Here are three key changes
1 The Daytona Repave
After the pothole debacle at last year's Great American Race—the 500 was delayed more than two hours to repair a hole in Turn 2—Daytona officials spent $20 million to tear up their 32-year-old racing surface and repave the 2.5-mile oval with 50,000 tons of asphalt. The track is now as smooth as any on the Sprint Cup circuit, which means speeds will be up and there will be more than the usual two preferred lanes of drafting. "The track has so much grip that there's no telling what people will try," says Carl Edwards. "The last lap is going to be insane."
2 The Change in the Chase
Winning will matter more this year than it did in 2010—at least for some drivers. The top 10 in the points standings after 26 races will advance to the Chase. Then the two drivers outside the top 10—but inside the top 20—with the most victories will be added to the 10-race playoff as wild-card entries. This means that if a driver gets off to a slow start, he can still race his way into relevancy. (Jamie McMurray, who won his second race of 2010 at Indy on July 25, would have made the Chase under this rule.)
3 The Nationwide Makeover
Cup drivers have won the last five Nationwide championships, making the series little more than a playground where the bullies rule. Not anymore. This year drivers may compete for a title in only one series, a rule change that should deter Cup drivers from running full Nationwide schedules. (Cup drivers will still be allowed to race for victories on NASCAR'S junior circuit.) At last, the Nationwide Series has a chance to be what it should have been all along: a proving ground for young talent.
SIX AGAINST A SIXTH
Jimmie Johnson has won five straight Cup titles and is gunning for yet another, but half a dozen of NASCAR's best have a shot at ending his streak
Jimmie Johnson's 2010 Sprint Cup championship was his fifth straight title, an unprecedented feat. It was also his most impressive win to date, as Johnson (above) didn't even have the fastest car in the 10-race Chase. (That belonged to Denny Hamlin, who finished 39 points behind him in the standings.) Johnson won by displaying more savvy behind the wheel than at any point in his 10-year Cup career, which enabled him to avoid untimely accidents—something Hamlin couldn't do.
Johnson's number 48 team returns this season at full strength. And so the 2011 season opens with a very familiar question: Can anyone beat Jimmie? Here are the six drivers with the best chance:
1 DENNY HAMLIN
2010: 8 wins, 18 top 10s, 2nd in final standings
Strength Hamlin, like Johnson, now runs well on all types of tracks all season long and has emerged as a weekly threat to take the checkered flag.
Weakness A poor qualifier, last year Hamlin often found himself beginning races in the rear of the field, where crashes frequently take place. This is what doomed him at Homestead in the season finale.
Bottom line He made it close last year. Now no driver appears as well equipped to dethrone Johnson as Hamlin.
2 CARL EDWARDS
2010: 2 wins, 19 top 10s, 4th in final standings
Strength Edwards won the last two races of 2010, and he believes his team has figured out a setup secret on his number 99 Ford that will carry over into this season.
Weakness Aggressive behind the wheel—he sent Brad Keselowski into the fence at Atlanta—Edwards has few friends on track. He needs to show more patience in the game of give and take.
Bottom line If a driver from the powerful Roush Fenway Racing team is going to take down Johnson, it will be Edwards.
3 KYLE BUSCH
2010: 3 wins, 18 top 10s, 8th in final standings
Strength The younger Busch brother is widely regarded in the garage as the most talented driver in the sport, as he consistently exhibits more car control than anyone else in NASCAR.
Weakness An all-or-nothing driver, whose emotions have been known to get the best of him, Busch is often a wreck waiting to happen.
Bottom line Busch may well amass the most victories in 2011, but until he reduces the number of on-track risks he takes, he won't win the Cup.
4 KEVIN HARVICK
2010: 3 wins, 26 top 10s, 3rd in final standings
Strength Harvick was the steadiest driver in the Cup series last season; he scored the most points over the entire 36-race season.
Weakness Harvick's pit crew committed too many critical, untimely mistakes in the Chase, ultimately costing him a shot at the championship.
Bottom line If Harvick's restaffed pit crew performs at a high level—five of the seven members are new—he'll once again be a serious contender come Homestead.
5 JEFF GORDON
2010: 0 wins, 17 top 10s, 9th in final standings
Strength Still an elite talent at age 39, Gordon will work with new chief Alan Gustafson, who possesses one of the sharpest minds in the sport and who should reinvigorate Gordon.
Weakness In 2010 Gordon failed to win a race for the second time in three seasons, which shows the four-time champ isn't the finisher he once was.
Bottom line Gordon knows that time is running out for him to win another championship. A sense of urgency could put him right back in the hunt.
6 TONY STEWART
2010: 2 wins, 17 top 10s, 7th in final standings
Strength When the temperatures rise and the tracks grow slick, Smoke heats up; at one point last summer he had six top 10 finishes in seven races, including a win.
Weakness Stewart struggled for much of 2010 with a poor-handling race car, as he and his crew chief, Darian Grubb, were constantly searching for more grip.
Bottom line In his third year as a driver-owner, Stewart is as good as any driver at ordering midrace adjustments to find more speed, which is why he remains a credible title contender.