I was in Daytona that fateful day eight years ago, sitting along the front stretch, watching the drama unfold as the afternoon went on. That year's Daytona 500 was a great race with 14 different lap leaders. It was also the first race back in the Cup series in quite some time for Dodge.
The Dodge boys were strong that day, as Bill Elliott started from the pole, Ward Burton led the most laps, and Sterling Marlin looked to have the car to beat for most of the day.
The "big one" came on lap 174 that year. I wouldn't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure that it was Robby Gordon that turned Tony Stewart on the back stretch. Stewart went sailing through the air, directly over his JGR teammate Bobby Labonte's car. It was probably the most cars I've ever seen wreck in person. The race box score lists 19 cars involved in that melee.
When the green flag flew on lap 180, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was leading, and the fans were in for a 20 lap shootout. Marlin took the lead for a lap, then Dale Sr. powered to the front for one lap on lap 183. Mike Waltrip got by Sr. on the very next lap, and never was headed off. Waltrip won the race on lap 200, as all hell broke loose in NASCAR's world behind him.
With his two self-owned DEI cars running first and second, Dale Sr. was determined to hold off the pack of hungry drivers nipping at their wheels. Earnhardt was the master at Daytona, but he was mortal after all. He tried to block two different lines of cars going into turn three. First, he pulled low to stall out Marlin. His car was a little loose after that, but he still went high to block Ken Schrader.
He didn't quite pull it off. He lost control of his and began heading straight for the wall as Schrader's car also hit him. At this time, Waltrip and Jr. were crossing the finish line, still one and two. I doubt anyone in attendance then would have suspected that Sr. was even hurt, let alone much worse.
I know I didn't, as I was giving Sr. and his fans a few choice words about him wrecking Schrader. Looking back, I'm embarrassed to admit I did that, but no one knew his condition at that time.
A few hours later, driving up I-95 through the dark woods of Georgia, we heard the announcement on the radio..."We've lost Dale Earnhardt." My head was spinning. How? Why?
We were stunned. I called my brother, a big Dale fan. He was crying when he answered the phone. There wasn't much to say; he just relayed to us what was happening on TV.
We spent the rest of the trip home holding back tears, and sharing Dale Sr. stories. How he amazed us. How he enraged us.
Dale Earnhardt Sr.....the best driver I ever saw!
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