There is no question that the 2001 NASCAR Cup season was a difficult one for everyone. The death of Dale Earnhardt overshadowed the activities at the track each week.
On the third lap of each race, the fans held up three fingers, honoring their fallen hero. The announcers went silent, not speaking a word during the same lap. The loss of the icon was constantly on the minds of the drivers, crews, and fans.
Quite possibly the most difficult day of the year came when the series made at that time its lone trip to the California Speedway. The setting was the NAPA Auto Parts 500, but what made the race tough was the day it was raced. It was April 29, what would have been Earnhardt's 50th birthday.
The driver that took it the hardest, other than Earnhardt Jr, was Rusty Wallace. These two, although stiff competitors, were the closest of friends outside the track. Both of them, along with Jeff Gordon, helped start Chase Authentics, which has become the official apparel designer of NASCAR.
They were also great friends when it comes to hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. You could not find two drivers closer outside the track.
For Wallace, it was more than just losing a fellow driver. It was as if one of his family members had passed away.
He wanted to win a race during the season, just so he could honor his fallen friend in some small way.
Then came the California Speedway. After 200 laps, it came down to a battle between Wallace and Gordon for the checkered flag. Gordon was trying to continue his run of winning at California on odd-numbered years. Wallace was trying to get his first win since Bristol the year before.
When the laps began winding down, Wallace had the lead, with Gordon trying to run him down. However, this time it was Wallace's turn to take the victory.
After the race, as has been tradition with Wallace, he would do the "Polish Victory Lap," in honor of Alan Kulwicki. This time, he decided to do something different.
The crew came out to the front stretch, handing Wallace a flag. No one could tell what it was, until he began to pull away. What the fans and the camera captured was an Earnhardt flag.
As Wallace pulled away, the FOX announce team was left speechless because all of them also had a close relationship with Earnhardt.
Darrell Waltrip had his rivalry in the mid 1980s. Larry McReynolds was his crew chief when he won the Daytona 500. Mike Joy had announced countless races that Earnhardt had won.
As Wallace rounded the second turn, the FOX production crew did something that was very appropriate. They kept Wallace's car on screen, but then blended in a picture of Earnhardt.
That image is one I remember so vividly. It was as if Earnhardt was there, watching his friend honor him the only way he knew how.
Wallace would continue to race until 2005, stepping aside from the career he enjoyed so much.
Out of all the wins in Wallace's career, that win had to be the most emotional. At that point in the season, it was also the most appropriate.
In my eyes, when the series makes it's trip to California, that win is the one that always comes to mind.