Time is supposed to help you heal, though still till this day nine years later, I still feel sadness when I think of Dale Earnhardt. Maybe I don’t cry as hard, or maybe I don’t even cry at all, though I still feel the sadness.
The last few laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, I was cheering for Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dale Earnhardt to finish one-two-three. As the two Dale Earnhardt Incorperated (now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing) cars headed through three and four, I knew it’d be one-two and Mikey would win. Then the wreck happened in turn four, but I thought he’d be okay. We’d seen him walk away from terrible wrecks before.
Darrell Waltrip’s words of calling those final laps with, “Mikey, you got him, you got him. Mikey!” still ring in my head to this day. Those words looked to be the strongest Daytona 500 winning call since Ned Jarrett in 1993. But downplaying it was the emotion of the words, “I hope Dale is okay. He’ll be okay, right?” Those words tied a knot in my stomach even at the age of 10. You could feel his own worry overcome his professionalism as a broadcaster.
In my blur of thoughts, next I recall Mike Helton’s words when he said, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” I instantly broke down into tears as my emotions took over. How could one of my heroes die? Heroes aren’t supposed to die!
The next coming weeks and months proved to be trying, yet hopeful. It was hard to watch a race due to my sadness, though certain particular races pulled me in and kept my heart in racing.
The first race after Daytona was at Rockingham. The Sunday they were supposed to race, it rained, symbolizing everybody’s sadness. Maybe the rain was the racing gods crying with us, understanding our pain, though trying to signify it beyond our understanding. Maybe that was why there was a cloud in the shape of three above Dale Earnhardt Incorporated the Monday after the Daytona 500.
Back on topic with the race, the first laps once they got started caused more emotional turmoil due to Dale Jr.’s wreck. He was already suffering from the pain of loss. How could he suffer more? Though thinking back to that now, maybe it was to let him be done and be able to go home to his family and spend the time he needed with them. Heart ache is best dealt with in the arms of those you love, so allowing him to be with them maybe eased the pain a little.
In all of this with this race, the most significant moment that many remember to this day was the ending and the winner. Steve Park came from a couple seconds behind in the closing laps to pass Bobby Labonte near the end and win the race for everybody at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. This race helped to ease the pain. It allowed not only the fans, but those Dale Earnhardt Incorporated employees to know that racing would continue.
The following weekend they headed to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in which Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag. When you looked at it on the surface, it looked just like another win, though looking back now, it was significant for the entire picture. Earnhardt was always thought of as an everyman while Gordon was the new-generation, like a celebrity type.
After that, the healing process eased for the Richard Childress Racing bunch as Harvick beat Gordon barely to the line at Atlanta, just like Earnhardt beat Labonte the year before. It allowed the Richard Childress Racing bunch to see they could continue on, as the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team had seen at Rockingham. When Richard Childress Racing rolled out the No. 29 car, I applauded them for bringing out a new number and going with white instead of black due to how the emotions were at that time.
Through all this, though, I was still looking towards Earnhardt Jr. to have his moment where everybody knew it’d be okay for him. That started to come out at Texas, where he won the pole and finished eighth, though the moment that everybody still recalls as big today is the 2001 Pepsi 400.
When it came to returning to Daytona, emotions were high as everybody fought with their memories of the February race and with what happened. As the race went on, I watched him dominate and take control, leading the pack like his dad.
Then came those final seven laps where he sat back in sixth, make or break time as I called it at the moment. Everybody pretty much now knows how this ended as he did make it through the pack, and scored the victory with Alan Bestwick’s call, “Coming from sixth to first in the closing laps using lessons learned from his father to score the victory.”
It was also where we saw the biggest of emotions come out with what Alan Bestwick called, “Storybook ending.” Michael and Dale Jr. hugged in the infield, symbolizing that they’d both be okay and that they could celebrate this together, like they had wanted to in February. Benny Parsons words in saying, “He went to perfect place. There was no other place he could’ve went to.” Those words fit perfect at that moment as he was right, it was the right place for all the emotions to come together.
As I finish my own look back at the 2001 season from Daytona to Daytona, I realize that it was an emotional roller coaster for all and yes, maybe time does heal pain as I can now sit back and realize that somehow we all fought through it.. Yes, when February 18th does come around each year, we all do sit around and cry, but we all know that both NASCAR and each individual can carry on.
So as this February 18th, 2010 passes, each of these thoughts come through mine, each reminding me of how great Earnhardt’s impact on the sport was and still is to this very day.