July 16, 2024

In 2000, Earnhardt began to look like before. Many believed it was due to neck surgery he had had to repair the injury he sustained at Talledega in ’96. He won 2 of the most exciting races of that season. One was in Atlanta when he beat Bobby Labonte to the finish line by .006 seconds, the other happened in Talledega when Earnhardt gained 17 positions in 4 laps to take the victory. With these victories under his belt, Earnhardt moved up to 2nd place in the points standings. But accidents at Watkins Glen and Bristol, plus poor performances in a couple more races, would prevent him from winning another title.

It was a beautiful day for racing, February 18, 2001. The first official race of the year, NASCAR’s ‘Super Bowl’, the Daytona 500. In the 90s, Dale Earnhardt seemed relaxed and confident before the start of the race. A spectacular accident in which several cars were eliminated from the competition occurred at the end of the race. After a red flag stop to clear the track, the race continued with Dale Earnhardt, his son Dale Jr. and his DEI teammate Micheal Waltrip leading the way. With 3 laps to go, it was Waltrip in the lead followed by Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Sr. Earnhardt Sr. had been battling Sterling Marlin’s attempts to take third place.

During the last lap, Earnhardt was running three widths with Marlin and Kenny Schrader. For unknown reasons, Earnhardt’s car was suddenly thrown down the track. The left rear quarter of Earnhardt’s car made light contact with Marlin’s front bumper. Car No. 3 rolled off the runway and onto the platform, then started back down the runway. Earnhardt’s car collided with Schrader’s car and Dale hit the wall head-on at 160 miles per hour. Compared to similar shipwrecks of that type, no one thought it was that bad. Waltrip won the race. EMT crews, along with Dale Jr., rushed to the crash site. Earnhardt was taken by ambulance to Halifax Medical Center. A few hours later, NASCAR President Mike Helton announced the death of Dale Earnhardt. Not just NASCAR, but the entire sporting world was stunned. The once seemingly unbeatable Dale Earnhardt was gone.

But as a friend pointed out to me, he probably died just where he could. Doing what he loved so much and what he was so damn good at. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still racing and has some accomplishments to his credit. Dale Earnhardt Sr., he was competitive, stubborn, tough, with his friends and family, just a good kid from North Carolina, and he was a winner. He was all of those things. I’d like to think that when he got to heaven, Ralph Earnhardt was there to meet his son. With a handshake, a pat on the back, and a comment that went something like, “Damn, you did pretty well. I’m proud of you.”

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