A Fellow Racer Recalls Dale Earnhardt's Deadly Crash

Dale Earnhardt, in front of his No. 3 car, looks on during practice for the Ford City 500 in 1999. Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001.

Dale Earnhardt, in front of his No. 3 car, looks on during practice for the Ford City 500 in 1999. Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. Jamie Squire/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Jamie Squire/Getty

On Feb. 18, 2001, Michael Waltrip won his first NASCAR race after racking up 462 losses without a single win. His Daytona 500 victory, however, paled in comparison to the other major event of the day: The beloved racer Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last turn of the last lap. Waltrip raced for Earnhardt's team and considered him a close friend. A decade later, he says he has never celebrated that win.

"It's sad to say, but it's the trophy that no one would want to have," Waltrip told Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. "What I've done over the last 10 years is build a team with great sponsors and great drivers, and I did all those things with Dale's spirit with me."

In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip
 
In the Blink of an Eye
By Michael Waltrip
Hardcover, 240 pages
Hyperion
List Price: $24.99
Read An Excerpt

Earnhardt had approached Waltrip about racing for his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Alongside Waltrip on the team were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park. Earnhardt Sr. was racing for another team entirely but still put the emphasis on the group with his name on it. On the morning of the race, Waltrip recalls, Earnhardt came up to him and said they'd need to have help to win. Whoever got to the front of the pack would stay there, and the others would help block cars until the final lap.

Some have speculated that Earnhardt crashed because he resolved to block cars for Waltrip, but Waltrip says he knows Earnhardt would have tried his best to win on the last lap, as they had agreed.

"He had blocked his butt off up until that point, but on the last turn of the last lap, he knew, too, that there wasn't any way that anyone was going to beat us. Maybe he thought he would be the one who could beat [Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip], and he could win the race and we'd be 1, 2, 3 with him out front," says Waltrip, who details the day's events in his new book, In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything..

Forty-three cars had lined up at the Daytona 500 that day, but a crash in the 20th lap took a few out of commission. At that point, Waltrip and the two Earnhardts had the top three spots, and they stayed in that formation for the rest of the race. Instead of trying for the front spot, Earnhardt Sr. committed to blocking for Waltrip, which Waltrip says shows the late driver's discipline and character.

Earnhardt's popularity came from his confident presence, Waltrip says, but also from his commitment to team spirit. Race car drivers don't have to drive in teams, but Earnhardt wanted to nonetheless, Waltrip explains.

Author and racer Michael Waltrip i i

Michael Waltrip stands with his 2011 Daytona 500 race car. In his book In the Blink of an Eye, Waltrip recalls the events of the 2001 Daytona 500, in which his friend and fellow racer Dale Earnhardt died. Tyler Barrick/Autostock hide caption

itoggle caption Tyler Barrick/Autostock
Author and racer Michael Waltrip

Michael Waltrip stands with his 2011 Daytona 500 race car. In his book In the Blink of an Eye, Waltrip recalls the events of the 2001 Daytona 500, in which his friend and fellow racer Dale Earnhardt died.

Tyler Barrick/Autostock

"You watched him walk up, and you could just tell by his swagger that he was ready to go race. The race car drivers respected his presence, and the race fans just loved his hardworking, blue-collar-type style that he went about racing with," he says.

As the fatal accident happened on the last turn of the last lap, Waltrip wasn't aware that his friend had crashed until after he had driven his car into Victory Lane. Because he had never had a win, Waltrip says, coming in first in the Daytona 500 put him into a sort of state of shock. He thought about his friend as he waited for the trophy and realized he most looked forward to Earnhardt's congratulations.

"As I sat in Victory Lane, I just couldn't wait for Dale to get there to give me the congratulations. I wanted that worse than I wanted the trophy; I wanted him to come put that big bear hug on me and tell me congratulations. And I know he would have said, 'I told you you'd win in my car.' "

Excerpt: 'In the Blink of an Eye'

In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip
 
In the Blink of an Eye
By Michael Waltrip
Hardcover, 240 pages
Hyperion
List Price: $24.99

Of course, I hadn't seen any of the TV coverage. I was still blissfully clueless. Although Dale hadn't gotten to Victory Lane yet, I knew he must be on his way.

I had it all figured out.

I guessed he got a piece of that last-lap wreck and was being checked out at the Infield Care Center. I could not wait until he got there and joined our celebration. He had to be so proud.

I mean, this win was more his than it was mine. He was why this all happened. He saw it happening way before I did, way before anyone did. He believed I could win all along, even before he hired me. He coached me all winter, and he directed the preparation of my #15 cars. Then, that meeting Friday. Wow! He called it! He called it and we did it!

I had it all pictured in my mind, him walking up with that mischievous grin all over his face that seemed to say, "Hey, I told you so. Hell, I told everyone so."

I wanted a hug, too. One like he had given Dale Junior when Junior won the All-Star Race in 2000. That was one of those moments that made me cry. And I wasn't even there when it happened. I'd just seen it on TV. But I knew how much it meant to the two of them.

I knew Dale, and I knew joy when I saw it, and that moment in Victory Lane with his son was joyous. I was about to receive that same type of approval, the I-knew-you-would-win-for-me validation I desperately needed. So as all the accolades of winning the Daytona 500 were being showered on me I kept wondering, Where's Dale?

I kept glancing at the entrance of Victory Lane. I was sure that any moment Big E was going to walk through there and give me what I wanted more than a trophy or a check. He was going to walk in there, start slapping everybody on the back, and say, "This is why all of you are on my team. I knew all of you were winners."

While the photographers took pictures and I smiled, I wondered: So what's taking Dale so long to get here?

He probably stopped to see Dale Junior. Junior did just finish second in the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup Series champion driver, now could add owner of the first- and second-place finishers, a one-two finish, in the Daytona 500, to his impressive résumé. A lot of reporters probably wanted to talk to him about that.

Meanwhile, I was still doing interviews, posing for pictures, swapping hats, all the stuff I'd watched other people do for the past sixteen years, and I was loving every minute of it. It was my time to shine, and my smile was bigger than it had ever been. This scene would be complete as soon as Dale showed up.

I hope Dale Junior comes with him too, I was thinking. The three of us did this together. What could be better than the three of us being together in Victory Lane?

Man, where were they?

Heck, when I won the All-Star race, Dale was one of the first people to Victory Lane to congratulate me. He even beat my brother there. And Dale was only partly responsible for that win. He just put me and Wood Brothers together. He set it up. But we had to do the rest on our own. But not today. He put me in his car. He told me how we were going to win the race. And on the track, he made sure it all went down just like he said.

Between looking for Dale, I was still living in the hectic pace of Victory Lane. "Smile here, Mike." "Smile there, Mike." "Talk to Fox Dallas, Mike." "Talk to the local Fox affiliate, Mike."

But still no Dale.

I was beginning to grow a bit frustrated. I asked Buffy, Ty, and a couple of crew guys to find out where Dale was and why he wasn't there yet. They all told me similar things. "He's on his way. He'll be here in a minute." And I bought that. Maybe Dale was giving me time to enjoy win number one with my new team. But that didn't make any sense. This was his new team too. I couldn't figure out why he wasn't there.

It seemed like he would have had plenty of time to be checked out at the track hospital, then stop to congratulate Dale Junior and make it here by now. But I just kept trying to justify why he wasn't there yet. I knew every reporter in Daytona would like to hear an answer from maybe the greatest NASCAR racer ever, winner of the 1998 Daytona 500 and some seventy other races: "How did you take a guy who had gone 0 for 462, put him behind the wheel, and have him go one for one? How did you do that, Dale? How's that possible?"

And I wanted to ask Dale the same thing. "How did you do that?" Clearly, it wasn't just an accident. You did it. "You planned it, and you made it happen today."

Finally, somebody I knew turned up.

It was Kenny Schrader. He'd been out there in the middle of all that mess with me. And now, I assumed, he came to say congratulations. When I saw Schrader coming toward me, I thought of my first win with the team I started behind my house. I beat him in a NASCAR West race in Colorado. We battled door to door, and I pulled away at the end. When I got to the airport that night, he'd written a note and stuck it on my plane.

"You are a wiener!" he wrote. "Congratulations, friend."

Kenny and I were buddies, and it was great to see him walking into Victory Lane. I had a trophy in my hand, confetti on my head, and a can-you-believe-this look on my face.

I said, "Schrader, look. I won the Daytona 500."

But this Kenny Schrader I was looking at, he didn't look right. And he wasn't acting right either. Certainly not the way I had expected him to. He should have been smiling, I thought. He must have been having trouble putting the moment into words.

"I know this is a bit of an upset," I joked. "But is it really that shocking that I actually won a race? You're speechless?"

Then he reached out and grabbed me, squeezing both my arms below my elbows. I didn't understand what he was doing. He didn't say a word. But I could tell he was upset.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

Excerpted from In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip. Copyright 2011 by Michael Waltrip. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved.Available wherever books are sold.

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In the Blink of an Eye

Dale, Daytona, and the Day That Changed Everything

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