STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On this day 10 years ago, 43 drivers lined up to race the Daytona 500. One of them was Dale Earnhardt. He was a NASCAR champion and a fan favorite. Another driver was Michael Waltrip. Before the contest, Waltrip had driven in well over 400 races and never won any. In spite of that winless record, Michael Waltrip was driving in one of Earnhardt's team cars that day. Now, Michael Waltrip has written a book called "In the Blink of an Eye." It recounts the tragedy that would claim Dale Earnhardt's life.
What made him so popular?
Mr. MICHAEL WALTRIP (NASCAR Racer; Author): His intimidating force on the track and even around the garage area. His nickname was The Intimidator. And he just - he had this persona about him that exuded confidence. I mean, you watched him walk up, and you could just tell by his swagger that he was ready to go race. And the racecar drivers respected his presence. And the race fans just loved his hardworking, blue-collar-type style that he went about racing with. He was the man, for sure.
INSKEEP: How'd you get on his team?
Mr. WALTRIP: Well, Dale and I had been friends ever since I showed up racing in NASCAR back in the '80s. And all through the '80s, '90s, he told me - I was struggling. I could never put it all together and win...
INSKEEP: Over 462, is that right?
Mr. WALTRIP: Yup, that's her.
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Mr. WALTRIP: That's the old pink elephant that would always be standing in the room when I came walking up. But Dale didn't care about that. He just always told me: You get in my cars, I'd make you a winner. And so when we headed for Daytona for the 500 in 2001, I had a new ride. My car owner was my buddy, and I was set on go to go win the Daytona 500.
INSKEEP: This will be unfamiliar to some people, that there are even are teams in a Daytona 500. What exactly does it mean to be on a team, on Dale Earnhardt's team, and how did you guys work together, exactly?
Mr. WALTRIP: It was new to me, too. That was the first time I'd had teammates. Dale Earnhardt owned Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. It was a three-car, NASCAR-Sprint Cup Series team in 2001. Steve Park, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip - me - we were on Dale's team.
Dale drove for Richard Childress Racing, a team he had won six championships with. And he came up to me on Friday morning and said, look, I got a plan. These rules in Daytona are different this year. You got to have help. And that the end of this race, me and you and Dale, Jr. are going to work together. Whoever gets to the front's going to stay there, and the other two are going to block and fight, and we're going to decide this thing on the last lap.
And, you know, that plan sounded great to me. But then I got to thinking, you know, that's kind of a little unrealistic. There's 43 cars out there. He thinks the three of us are going to fight to the front? Sure enough, with 20 laps to go, there was a huge crash, and they threw the red flag to clean up the mess. And we rode to a stop because of the red flag. I was running first, Dale, Jr. was second, and Dale was third.
So when they threw the green, we went back to racing. I got the lead, ran just like that, in formation - one, two, three - all the way to third turn on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
And so, as I looked in the mirror and as I watch replays of that race that day, people say, you know, Dale Earnhardt died blocking for Michael and Dale, Jr. Well, that's not true. 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 anyone was going to beat us, that we had gotten out too far on the rest of the pack. He was just simply trying to fight his way to a third-place finish is one thing I saw or thought.
The other thing I saw and thought is maybe he thought he would be the only one that could beat us two and he could win the race. And we'd be one, two, three, with him out front.
Now, instead of us driving off turn four, Dale, Jr. and I - for the perfect finish to maybe the greatest Dayton 500 ever - Dale got crashed, hit the wall and died there that day.
INSKEEP: What do you see when you watched the tape of that?
Mr. WALTRIP: I just see us driving off toward checkered flag. And in my brain, I know that the last thing Dale Earnhardt knew on this Earth was that his cars were going to go win the Daytona 500, that his boys had done the job he told they needed to do.
INSKEEP: Were you aware, as you took the checkered flag, that Earnhardt had crashed behind you?
Mr. WALTRIP: No. I think I went into a mild state of shock when I took the checker. You got to realize, 15 years and 462 tries, it was - it's the Daytona 500, first of all. It didn't matter what your record was prior to you. You win the Daytona 500, that's a big day. And as I drove back to victory lane, I went right past the crash site, but I didn't -it didn't register. I didn't see Dale. I didn't see anything. I just headed to victory lane.
And as I sat in victory lane, I just couldn't wait for Dale to get there and give me the congratulations that I - I wanted that worse than I wanted than 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.
INSKEEP: How has it affected your life that the first of your major victories of any kind would be linked with the death of Dale Earnhardt in this way?
Mr. WALTRIP: Well, this is the 10th anniversary of that day, and I've never celebrated that win. It's sad to say, but it's the trophy that no one would want to have. What I've done over the last 10 years is built a team with great sponsors and great drivers. And I did all those things with Dale's spirit with me, even though he's gone.
I used to love how Dale would walk around his shop, and the men and women that worked there, you could just tell. They would see him walk by, and they would think: These are Dale's cars. We've got to make them faster than everybody else's. He didn't have to have a team. He just wanted to have a team. You know, and he'll always be with me.
INSKEEP: Michael Waltrip, one other thing. You said that with 20 laps to go, you were in the lead. The Earnhardts were in second and third, and the decision was made that you were going to be the one who was going to ahead and win and they were going to block for you. It seems to say something about the man's character that he would block for you in that situation.
Mr. WALTRIP: Well, I think he felt like neither one of us were probably disciplined enough to stay there and do what he did. I just like to think that his plan also included trying to drive up there and pass us both coming off turn four. That would have been the perfect ending to that day for me, certainly - not the one that actually wound happening.
INSKEEP: Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 10 years ago, the race in which Dale Earnhardt died. His book is called "In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day that Changed Everything."
Thanks very much.
Mr. WALTRIP: I appreciate you having me on. Thank you.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.