Nearly 20 years ago, Dale Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 sent shockwaves through the professional auto racing community. On February 18, 2001, Dale Sr. lost his life at the 43rd running of The Great American Race following a devastating collision on the outside wall at Daytona International Speedway. He was 49 years old.
Even after all these years, we still feel the impact of possibly the most tragic NASCAR wreck of all time. Here’s a look at exactly what happened leading up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of that fateful day.
Dale Earnhardt: NASCAR Legend
Known as the Intimidator, Earnhardt left an indelible mark on the sport of professional auto racing. With 76 race wins, 428 top-10 finishes, and 22 poles in 676 races run, Earnhardt was a seven-time Winston Cup Series champion, tying for the most all-time with Richard Petty.
Before his untimely death at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt was able to finally snag a Daytona 500 win in 1998. It was an important moment in the Kannapolis, North Carolina native’s career, considering that victory at the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” had eluded him for many years. Coming into the 2001 running, he was going for a second Daytona 500 victory. Unfortunately, that second victory would never come.
What Happened at the 2001 Daytona 500?
Dale Earnhardt was calm and confident the morning of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Though Senior led for 17 laps in his No. 3 Goodwrench car, the real battle that day was between Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 Chevrolet and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Chevrolet. Considering that both Waltrip and Dale Jr. were members of Dale Sr.’s racing team, Earnhardt raced an uncharacteristically defensive race, seemingly content in hanging onto third.
On lap 173, there was a massive wreck that took out 18 cars, and the race had to be red-flagged so that the cars could be removed and the debris could be cleaned up.
During the caution period, Earnhardt chillingly told Richard Childress, the owner of his No. 3 car, “Richard, if they don’t do something to these cars, it’s gonna end up killing somebody.”
The race restarted on lap 180, with Junior and Waltrip still duking it out for first. On the final lap coming into turn 4, Earnhardt made light contact with Sterling Marlin, causing him to slightly lose control. As he attempted to regain it, he collided with Ken Schrader and slammed head-on into the retaining wall at speeds of around 160 MPH.
Schrader escaped his race car with minor injuries. He then quickly went over to Earnhardt’s car to check on his friend. It wasn’t good.
Moments later, Michael Waltrip had won the 2001 Daytona 500. Sadly, his trip to Victory Lane would be shrouded in tragedy. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was pronounced dead at the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida by Dr. Steve Bohannon at 5:16 PM Eastern Standard Time. The autopsy report showed that Earnhardt died instantly of blunt force trauma to his head as well as a basilar skull fracture.
Sporting News would later refer to the day that Dale died as “Black Sunday.”
The Aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s Death
On February 22, funeral services were held for Earnhardt at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Soon after, both a police investigation and a NASCAR-sanctioned investigation were conducted to determine whether there were any preventable causes surrounding Earnhardt’s death. Bill Simpson, whose company Simpson Performance Products made the seatbelt that Dale Sr. wore during the race, resigned following speculation of serious safety flaws with the belt. NASCAR officials implemented rigorous safety improvements as a result, including mandating the head-restraining HANS device.
Though Richard Childress announced that there would be a moratorium on the No. 3 car, it was later brought back to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2013 for Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon.
The Earnhardt Family Legacy
If you know anything about NASCAR, you know that the Earnhardts are one of the most well-respected families in the business, and that impressive legacy all traces back to Dale Earnhardt Sr. Of course, there’s two-time Daytona 500 winner and 15-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who actually finished second place in that fateful 2001 Daytona 500. Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Dale Jr.’s older sister, co-owns JR Motorsports with him.
Kerry Earnhardt, Dale Sr.’s eldest son, had a 10-year NASCAR career, while Kerry’s son, Jeffrey Earnhardt, also races part-time in the Cup Series. For the 2019 Daytona 500, Jeffrey sported an epic tribute to his grandpa on his helmet, which you can see in the below tweet from Fox.
Even Dale Sr.’s granddaughter, 18-year-old Karsyn Elledge, has been showing plenty of promise as an up-and-coming driver and kicked off her full-time dirt racing career in early 2019.
So, while Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash marked a dark day for NASCAR, we should look back fondly on Earnhardt’s tremendous career and his lasting legacy. Rest in peace, Dale.