Feb. 18, 2001: A Daytona 500 that ended in sorrow after Dale Earnhardt’s passing

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NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt who died 20 years ago this week on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the fourth chapter in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.

After Kyle Petty’s son, Adam, died in a crash during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in May 2000, Kyle Petty noticed a difference in Dale Earnhardt toward him.

“I could see Dale walking through the garage area,” Petty said. “If I was walking straight at him, he would turn and go the other way. He never acknowledged it. Never spoke from May of that year for the rest of the year, I never spoke to him. Never said a word to me. If we were in the drivers meeting, he would nod, and I would nod at him. He was not the only one. There were a lot of people that were the same way. So I’m not singling him out by any stretch.”

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Things changed in early February 2001. Petty and Earnhardt competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway for different teams. After both completed a shift in the middle of the night, Petty saw Earnhardt walking ahead of him.

“I thought, 2:30 in the morning, I’m going to make him talk to me,” Petty said. “I just ran up beside him. I said ‘How it’s going down here man?’ You could tell it caught him off guard. He said,
“It’s good. It’s different.” We just chit-chatted about the race, how these cars were driving at night, what it was like in the infield. Just nothing.

“As we got to the gate to get to the bus lot, he said, ‘Come on here for a minute,’ so I followed him over to his bus, which was on a different row. We sat outside his bus and probably talked for an hour or hour and a half just about everything.

“He had watched Adam grow, he had a son and it hits so close to home, he just didn’t know what to say (after Adam’s death). He just didn’t know what to say. It was painful for him. It was painful for him to talk about it. It was painful for him to acknowledge it. It was painful for him to talk about it a year later almost.

“It was just something that he didn’t ever want to think about, never wanted to have to confront and he had watched me confront it. It was incredibly emotional. I will say that. For both of us in some way.”

Fast forward two weeks to Feb. 18, 2001. Shortly before the Daytona 500, Earnhardt and Petty met again. This time it was before driver introductions.

“Standing behind the stage there, and he comes over,” Petty said of Earnhardt. “I’m going to tell you, I’m not going to lie. When he came over to say something, I just started crying. He said, ‘Listen, dude, it’s going to be all right.’ He said, ‘I know you feel bad. It’s going to be all right. Just hang in there.’ ”

A few hours later, a last-lap crash would claim Earnhardt’s life.

This is that day 20 years ago told by those who were there:

Richard Childress (Coffee with Kyle in 2019): In 2000, we had finished second to Bobby Labonte. We didn’t miss that championship by much. I remember  Dale was in Daytona had run the 24 hours, he called me from down there and he said … “We’re going to win this championship in 2001.” He said, “I’m going to be better on every track I go to.” He said, “I picked up a lot down here.” I don’t really know what it was he picked up, but I will never forget that conversation. I sat in my trophy room that night and I said, “We’re ready.” We were set to win the championship.

Dale Jarrett: Dale and I, our motorhomes were parked right across from each other at Daytona. … On Thursday after the 125-mile qualifying race, I’d gone to take the trash out, and he was sitting outside his motorhome. I’d started to wear the HANS device. And literally the Bud Shootout was the first time I really wore it in competition. I had experimented with it in testing at the end of 2000. So I wore it in the 125-mile qualifying race also. That was the longest period of time I had it on.

So I saw him outside, he said “Come over.” We sat down and were drinking a couple of beers, and our conversation turned to him asking me why I was wearing the HANS device. We’d had conversations about it, how it was uncomfortable. He didn’t like it. He didn’t think it was something he would ever get used to because of the way he liked to feel and be in the race car. I appreciated and understood that.

But something that always stuck out to me then, especially after Sunday happened in that Daytona 500, was that we were sitting there and one of his questions to me was “Are you wearing this HANS device because you’re afraid of dying?” And I said, “No, I don’t think about that side of it in that respect, Dale. I think it gives me a better chance in a crash at an angle that might stretch you further than what your body can withstand.” We talked about that for another six to eight minutes. It was a conversation that at the time just seemed like a conversation. It obviously took on a whole new meaning a few days later.

Dale Earnhardt signs an autograph after Daytona 500 qualifying on Feb. 10, 2001 (Kelly Jordan/News-Journal)

Don Hawk (president Dale Earnhardt Inc. 1993-2001): Saturday night (the night before the race) … he’s getting in his yellow Corvette in the driver/owner lot of Daytona International Speedway. You look across Turn 4 and can see the roof of the Hilton Garden Inn, where Dale almost hit at that point. I was staying there. He looks at me and says, “You get everything done you wanted?” I said “Yeah.” He said “You have a good week?” I said “Really good.” He said “Why don’t you surprise Cindy and pack your (stuff) and head on home because tomorrow you’re going to see something you’re never going to forget.” That’s the last words I heard out of Dale’s mouth.

Dale Jarrett: My Sunday morning started with doing hospitalities on that race morning. I had to go outside (the track), and the majority of us had to go outside to do ours. Earnhardt had hospitalities brought to him because he could do that. He was in the motorhome lot with a group of 20-25 that had come to talk to him. He was signing autographs.

I told the people with me as we were getting ready to go on a golf cart outside the track, I said “Watch this, he’s just signing away and talking and not paying attention.” This was the first time they had UPS hats. I walked over, took my UPS hat off and handed it to him. He signed it and was literally handing it back and realized it was me. I had just a couple of years ago given it to Dale Jr., the only signed UPS Dale Earnhardt hat. That’s how the day started.

The Daytona 500 

Kurt Busch: I was a rookie in the wrong spot according to Senior. I think I was in the wrong spot. I was running in the top 10. On my right side, the 3 car comes scrapping by and drove up to the front of me and I’m like, “What did I just do?” Then I see his finger out the window. “OK, I was probably 99% wrong there.” Unfortunately, I never got to talk him afterwards about it. But, again, he’s the Intimidator. He was a force on the track just in those few short races (Busch ran with Earnhardt in 2000-01). Anytime the black 3 car was running around you or in the mirror, he had that presence. He was the Intimidator. Again, it was a privilege to race against him. He was taken away from us too soon.

The caution comes on Lap 175 for a 19-car accident on the backstretch. As Tony Stewart’s car goes airborne, Dale Earnhardt drives by and is not among those involved in the incident. Stewart is taken to a local hospital. 

Daytona 500 Stewart
Tony Stewart rolls down the backstretch late in the 2001 Daytona 500. (Robert Laberge/ALLSPORT)

Tony Stewart (2011 interview with AOL Fanhouse): It’s like, if I could have just nicked him on the way by, would it have changed things just enough to keep his accident later from happening? There’s no way anyone would ever wreck and think about hitting someone else believing it would do any good. I was along for the ride. But, it was just like, what if? If you looked at the two wrecks, you would have swore I was the one. … that if one of the guys passed away, you’d have swore it was from my crash, not his.

As Michael Waltrip leads Dale Earnhardt Jr. through Turn 4 on the final lap, Dale Earnhardt Sr. is among a group of cars, including Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader. There’s contact and Earnhardt’s car shoots up the track into the concrete wall. 

Mike Joy (calling final lap on the Fox broadcast) Big Trouble! Big wreck behind them!

Official Accident Report No. 3 Car (Volume 1 of 2): At the time of the impact with the wall, the No. 3 Car was traveling at approximately 157-160 mph.

Kyle Petty: I was behind it, so after he hit and came off the wall, we raced through it back to the line. It just didn’t look that bad.

Don Hawk: (Watching from home) I saw the car hit the wall and immediately took my fist and smacked it into the table next to me. I was drinking a club soda that flew all over the room. My wife looked at me. My son was scared. She asked what happened. I said that’s all the wrong hit at all the wrong angle in all the wrong way. I don’t like it. I started pacing the room.

They started putting up the barriers and flipping the TV away, and Darrell Waltrip going, “Man, I hope Dale’s OK.” I dialed Kenny Schrader on the phone. “I said Kenny, I’ve got a problem,” and he said, “We all do, pal. Get to the hospital.” I said, “Kenny, I’m in North Carolina.” He said “I’ll call Earl, we’ve got another plane up there, you need to get here right away.” I said “I don’t know who’s with (Earnhardt’s mother) Martha tonight. Am I smarter to try to get to Daytona or go to Martha?” “Hawk, I can’t tell you what to do. There’s a plane available, but I hope to heck someone is with Martha.”

Jerry Freeze (then team manager of Petty Enterprises): I remember Kyle had a really good run. We were buried in the points and needed to get off to a good start that year. (Kyle finished 16th). A lot of times I would ride back and forth with Kyle from the airport. I saw Kyle driving into the garage and he kind of gave me a thumbs up and he was smiling, which was unusual that he was happy after a race. I walked over to the car and I said, “Hey, I’ll go get the car and meet you at the bus.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s get out of here.” I just went and got the rental car and got them and we were just sitting on the airplane. There was nobody chattering on the Petty plane about anything going on with Earnhardt.

Dale Jarrett: When I went by the scene of the accident, it looked like another crash on the last lap of a restrictor-plate track race and didn’t think that much about it. I went on about my business going in the garage area, getting changed. My family knew things didn’t go well. I was ready to get out of there. I was literally walking in the motorhome lot and saw Dale Jr. coming toward me. I said “Hey, your dad is OK, right?” He said “Yeah, I think so. I’m just going to check.” I said “OK.”

Daytona 500 Waltrip
Michael Waltrip beats Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the 2001 Daytona 500. (Robert Laberge/ALLSPORT)

Dale Beaver (Motor Racing Outreach chaplain 1999-2005): The only reason I even went to Victory Lane was because Michael told us (MRO chaplain Max Helton and Beaver) that if he won that race, he was going to sing “This is the Day that the Lord has made.” He was going to sing it in Victory Lane. I went to Victory Lane because I wanted to make sure he did it. If you go back and look at that footage, he didn’t sing it, I think he forgot how to sing it, but he quoted a few lines of it. We laughed about it. I remember patting Max on the back. No sooner had I patted Max on his back … but the NASCAR official came over to me and said “We need for you to get over to the care center.”

I walked into the infield care center and the lights were kind of out. By the time I got in there, everybody was already out. I was a bit stunned because I thought “This is good news.” … About the time I got to the door, one of the doctors walked in and said “Dale, we’ve got a car here for you. Need you to go to the hospital, and I want to prepare you. It’s not good.” At that point, I still didn’t know who they were talking about. I went out and I sat down in the back seat of a law enforcement car. In front of me, I  saw Dale Jr. get into the back of an ambulance. I knew at that point then, “Oh goodness, this probably has something to do with Dale.”

Tony Stewart (who was sent to the hospital after his wreck earlier in the race, told AOL Fanhouse): They pushed me in the door and put me in the same room with him for just a second. Then they realized it and pulled me out right away and told me it was Dale in there. I was like, “You could have left me in there. I know him real well, it’s okay.” They were like, “No, I don’t think so.” I didn’t know he had passed, but I knew it wasn’t good. I was made aware shortly after that what happened. Teresa was there and Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) hadn’t gotten there yet.

Dale Beaver: Dale Jr. and I got to the (hospital) at the same time. Went to the waiting room there. I don’t know how Max had gotten there. Max was with Judy and Richard Childress. I went in and just stayed with Dale Jr. At that time, it was really, as I can remember, just us in there and Teresa had gone to talk to the doctors.

Tony Stewart (in 2011 interview with AOL Fanhouse): “I don’t know Teresa very well, but I can tell you one thing, that’s a strong woman. I mean, she lost her best friend, her husband. .… At that time, that was the strongest woman I had ever met and she still is to this day as far as I’m concerned.

Mike Helton (Coffee with Kyle in 2019): Between the moment of the accident and the announcement, there was a lot of dialogue and a lot of conversations that I’ll probably just take to my grave, but there was that moment we were sitting saying, well, by then most of the industry had figured out, but we had to authenticate and make it official. I got picked to do it (as President of NASCAR at the time). I said — I used some adult words — “We just lost the biggest thing in our sport, what am I going to say?” Brian France or maybe Paul Brooks or somebody said, “Well that’s what you say, we just lost the biggest thing in our sport today.”

Mike Helton (2001 news conference at Daytona): This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever had to personally make, but after the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt. … Our prayers and wishes and our effort right now at this moment is with Teresa and the Earnhardt family, Richard Childress and his family and Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Dale Earnhardt Memorial
Fans gathered at a memorial for Dale Earnhardt at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)

Dale Jarrett: We landed (in Hickory, North Carolina). I saw a guy who worked for me quite a while. I knew as soon as I saw him there, there was no reason for him to be there, and I knew something bad had happened. There was nothing that told me that the outcome was what had happened before I left Daytona. I certainly would have stayed around, not that there was anything I could have done, but just as this was my friend. … I had Kelley and my kids on the plane with me. It was just then that the world changed. I didn’t know what to say to them. He was good to my kids. They appreciated him and everything he’d done for us.

Jerry Freeze: We walked into Piedmont Aviation in Greensboro, North Carolina (after flying in from Daytona) and a guy had the TV on in the lobby and they were just looking at it dumbfounded. … It does seem like that Mike Helton had just made the announcement because it seems like the guy at the FBO was like, “Man, did you hear? Earnhardt was killed in that wreck.” I can remember all of us just sitting around. … Here we are at the Pettys coming off Adam’s accident just the year before. It was just bringing back a lot of bad memories.

Dale Beaver (MRO chaplain): Right before we left (the hospital), Dale Jr. said, “Do you mind going back to the track and getting my guys together?” I said “Absolutely. What do you want me to do with them?” (Dale Jr. said) “Bring them to my motorhome. … Max (Helton) took me back to the track and immediately to the garage and I got Tony (Eury Sr.) and the team to come to the hauler. Tony … he was just, bless his heart, he could hardly stand. Got them over to Junior’s motorcoach. I prayed with them and got out of there. I didn’t feel like that was my place. Then Dale met with them.

I headed back to our motorcoach. (Wife) Andree and I, because we had been there for two weeks, we had a motorcoach. My family was there. Of course, the MRO Community Center was there. I will never forget this. They had pulled out all of the toys in the community center and set up chairs. They said, “Dale, nobody was leaving.” … People were just hanging around because they didn’t know where else to go. … The whole driver/owner compound, they were shoehorned into that tent. I got up in front of them and just tried to comfort them the best I could. …

(Afterward) I can remember getting into the motorhome and going back there and sitting on my bed and looking at my watch. I remember pinching myself just to feel something because I was numb … and I just burst into tears.

Nate Ryan contributed to this story