Dale Earnhardt: Eight Years Later

Brian KennedyCorrespondent IFebruary 18, 2009

Eight years; has it really been that long? It seemed like yesterday that NASCAR was reeling after losing its seven-time champion, Dale Earnhardt, after the Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still a kid in NASCAR's eyes trying to get out from his father's shadow. Michael Waltrip was trying to jump-start his career with a new team owned by the Intimidating Earnhardt.

FOX Sports was also starting its coverage with a fresh face of commentators, including Earnhardt's good buddy, Darrell Waltrip. No one would've expected the first broadcast to be the most memorable.

Everyone in NASCAR was saying 2001 was Dale's year. The year before, Earnhardt fell 265 points short of winning his eighth, and record breaking, NASCAR Winston Cup Title to Bobby Labonte.

Even though he lost the title, Earnhardt showed that he still had a lot left in his tank. During the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt sliced and diced his way through the field and looked poised to contest for another win. Then tragedy struck.

Near the closing laps of the 500, fans saw a Dale Earnhardt they had never seen before. Instead of contesting for a win, Earnhardt blocked the field from getting to the first and second place cars in front of him:  the two cars in front of him he owned. 

In that moment, Dale Earnhardt went from Intimidator, to father and owner looking out for his boys.

As the field rounded the final turn, it looked as though Earnhardt would be celebrating in victory lane. Then in a moment's notice, Earnhardt's car was nudged and the seven- time champion went head first into the fourth turn wall.

The wreck seemed irrelevant because Earnhardt had been in far worse crashes and walked away with ease in years past. But after fans saw Ken Schrader walk up to the car and motion frantically for help, everyone knew something was wrong.

Darrell Waltrip's emotions were running crazy in the broadcast booth. His brother had just won the Daytona 500, yet his good friend had just been in an accident.

Almost immediately after his brother took the checkered flag, Waltrip looked back with uncertainty in his voice and simply said, "How bout Dale? Is he OK?"

Those words sent shock waves through televisions. The words were short, but many people around the world echoed the words, "Was Dale OK?"

Winning a race was something that eluded Michael Waltrip for over 500 races. On the day where he finally got over the hump, tragedy hung over the speedway.

Waltrip did not know about Earnhardt's fate, and kept looking over his shoulder waiting for his friend and owner to congratulate him. He never showed. What was supposed to be Michael Waltrip's happiest day turned into his saddest.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hit the hardest. As a driver, Junior lost his fellow competitor and owner. As a son, he had lost the one person who truly understood him; his father. 

Dale Jr. was starting to be known not as Dale's son, but one of Dale's drivers. Every decision Dale Jr. made hinged on what his father had to say about it. 

After the wreck, Dale Jr. was alone and had no one to turn to for advice. He was a boy lost in a man's world.

Eight years later, fans and drivers sometimes wonder, what could have been? Dale Earnhardt Sr. very well could have won his eighth title and won many more races.

By now, the elder Earnhardt would be near the end of his career at the age of 57. But knowing how Dale was, he would have driven until he couldn't drive anymore.

The sport itself has changed drastically. New safety pre-cautions have been implemented to keep all the drivers safe. Safety devices such as the HANS device, have been mandatory since Earnhardt's death.

The new Car of Tomorrow has turned a once vulnerable stock car with flaws, into an almost impenetrable tank with logos.

A new softer wall, the SAFER barrier, has been put it in at nearly every track to absorb a crash. All these have all stemmed from Dale Sr.'s crash.

As we look back today at the life of Dale Earnhardt, we shouldn't mourn, but think on the memories Dale left us. The Pass in the Grass in '87, the Bristol Bump in '99 and the Atlanta drag race in 2000 should all stand out in our minds. 

Yes, the Intimidator is gone, but his legacy lives on. Feb. 18, 2001, will forever be a day that stands out in NASCAR fans' minds. On that day, Dale Earnhardt took his final checkered flag, finishing with greatness.