The first week of January is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Yes, I know lots of people who downright loathe this week because it means the holidays are over and they have to go back to work. For me, it’s just the opposite, and there are two main reasons – I get itchy to get back at it around Dec. 28; and I know my annual trip to the high banks of Daytona International Speedway is a mere six weeks away! The 2011 DAYTONA 500 will mark my 11th consecutive Great American Race and the 10th Anniversary of the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt on the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 race. Much will be written and said about “The Intimidator” – and that fateful day – over the next month and a half, and none of it will come close to illustrating just how massive of a figure Earnhardt was to the sport of NASCAR and to millions of fans.
That day was surreal. The weather was perfect. The race was awesome. The storylines that figured to dominate the media that night and into the next week were stellar … right up until lap 199 when everything that day changed. Michael Waltrip won his first race after many years of races and no checkered flags. One of the most spectacular crashes in NASCAR history – one in which no one got hurt – happened with just a handful of laps left in the race, taking out almost half the field. Some have even suggested that race was going to be “it” for Earnhardt, a swan song in the fabled race he loved as retirement and a move full time into the owner’s seat and out of the driver’s seat was a possibility. It was also the first race under a massive contract that had, for the first time, put NASCAR exclusively on network TV. All in, there were so many incredible stories coming out of that race. They all took a seat so far back you can hardly call it a back seat when the legendary #3 crashed in Turn 4.
And, rightfully so.
That was the only day in my career I saw members of the media openly crying while covering a story.
My colleagues, who love the sport as much as I do, and I often discuss how the sport would be different today if Dale Sr. were still around. How would he feel about the new championship format? How would Dale Earnhardt Inc., look right now? What would Senior’s presence have meant for Junior’s career? What would he have thought of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin?
We’ll never know the answers to those questions. But, those of us who love NASCAR know the answer to the question of whether there will ever be anyone in NASCAR like Dale Earnhardt. That’s an emphatic no.