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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.

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."

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.

"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.' "

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