Dale Earnhardt was running in third place on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In an instant, everything changed.
The story is familiar.
The crash, the outpouring of grief and the struggle and ultimate triumph of the son all remain fresh in the minds of people who followed the sport then.
It remains a part of the sport to this day.
10 years later, the sport still responds at the mention of his name. His legacy runs deep in the community.
Kevin Harvick sometimes is the forgotten part of the story from 2001.
At 25 years old, he was just making a name for himself as the pilot of Richard Childress Racing’s Nationwide entry when he got the call to replace the Intimidator.
At the time, he didn’t think it was an enviable spot, but times have changed.
“I was very uncomfortable with it in the beginning, didn't like it, didn't want to be a part of it, and you know, as the last three or four years have come, I've learned to become more comfortable,” Harvick said Friday morning.
He recalled one of his encounters with Earnhardt back in 2000 after a test at Homestead.
“We got to Phoenix the next week and he was irate because we had gone and tested his car and nobody told him, so he had—he drug myself and Kevin Hamlin and Richard, and I don't know why Dale Jr. just happened to be in the trailer that day, but he was really pissed that nobody asked him to go.”
Earnhardt had that way about him. He could be, well, you know his nickname. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged as much on Thursday.
“He was intimidating, like they say. He was like that as a father when he was at home. You wanted to please him all the time, make him happy, and you wanted to—whatever you did, you wanted it to—you wanted it to somehow get a response from him.”
Earnhardt’s legacy is secure. His death was a defining moment for the sport and forced NASCAR to make changes that have allowed the drivers to compete in a safer environment than ever before.
Jeff Gordon, largely the foil for Dale Earnhardt during the 1990s, talked a little about his relationship with Earnhardt.
“I still have a tough time believing that he’s gone. I had such an amazing experience racing with him, and the time I spent away from the race track with him as well.”
Gordon, who had been a part of the sport through the era before Earnhardt’s death, was also quick to point out how his legacy may be the increased safety in the sport.
“I think Ayrton Senna come to mind,” referring to the Formula One icon who was killed in 1994.
“I think the advancement of safety in Formula One went to another level when Ayrton Senna was killed; same thing with Dale Earnhardt Sr.”
NASCAR President Mike Helton recalled Earnhardt’s contribution to the sport as well and that safety is an ongoing pursuit by the sanctioning body.
“I will remind everybody that one of the key legs of the stool that encouraged Bill Sr. to create NASCAR and found NASCAR was driver and spectator safety. He felt very compelled to be sure that something he loved doing was better off for the competitors and the stakeholders, so every day since 1947 we've worked on safety.”
The sport has changed in ways nobody could have imagined prior to that day. Most of them have been monumental in their positive impact to the sport.
Mandatory HANS devices, better seats and soft walls all started to become big parts of the sport after Earnhardt’s death.
Other changes have met with resistance.
Turn on the radio, click on the blogs or read a paper, and there’s always a panic over this change or that tweak.
NASCAR seems to persevere, just like it did after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
“I think the sport has gone on just fine, been very successful, more successful than I think any of us ever imagined,” said Earnhardt Jr.
Sometimes in all the noise over the points, or the spoilers, the plates or the pavement, it’s important to remember why all of us came to this sport in the first place.
Mike Helton remembered Friday afternoon.
“It catches your moment to drive through the tunnel of the Daytona International Speedway because you know you're pulling into a place that your heroes, past, present and future, it could be Richard Petty and David Pearson, or it could be Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., it could be Joey Logano or some kid we haven't heard about yet.”
“Their ambition to win the Daytona 500 is what inspires the start of the season. And we sometimes forget we're all fans.”
Yep, we’re all just fans.
We were that day, and we will be after the next big moment in the sport.
Hopefully the next one will be bright, instead of one of the sport's darkest days.
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