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On This Date in Sports February 18, 2001: Tragedy at Daytona

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

A thrilling finish at Daytona 500 is marred by tragedy as Dale Earnhardt dies after suffering a crash on the third turn of the final lap. Earnhardt was in third place blocking for the two cars that he owned. Michael Waltrip claims the checkered flag, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second. Going through the final turn, Sterling Martin made contact with Earnhardt's bumper. The contact caused the black #3 car to slam into the wall at full speed. The crash caused a Basilar skull fracture, and death was nearly instantaneous. Dale Earnhardt was the only driver who did not wear a neck restraint. After the crash, the restraint became mandatory. 

Born on April 29, 1951, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Dale Earnhardt was a second-generation stock car driver, following in the footsteps of his father, Ralph Earnhardt, who was one of NASCAR’s early pioneers. Becoming a full-time racer on the Winston Cup circuit in 1979, Earnhardt became an immediate star, winning the Rookie of the Year. Over the next two decades, Dale Earnhardt becomes NASCAR’s biggest star, as he tied Richard Petty’s record with seven Winston Cup season championships. A hard-charging aggressive driver in his trademarked black #3 Chevy, Dale Earnhardt earned the nickname the intimidator.

At the age of 47, Dale Earnhardt had achieved everything in NASCAR, winning every major race at least once, except the biggest of them all, the season-opening Daytona 500. Starting with his first race at Daytona in 1979, Earnhardt was almost always in contention but somehow never was able to win the “Great American Race” as he finished in the top ten 14 times and including ten times in the top five. This included a four-year stretch, where the man in black finished second three times. Amazingly, Earnhardt was dominated during the week leading up to the Daytona 500, as he won 27 races during his 19 years at speed week leading up to the race.

After finally winning the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt's career resume was complete. As he approached the age of 50, he began focusing on owning a NASCAR team, setting up his future after he retired from racing. It was a new era for NASCAR, as they began a multi-year deal with NBC and Fox. Fox would broadcast the first half of the season, while NBC handled the second half. Earnhardt had a new race team as he owned Michael Waltrip's cars, and his son Dale Jr., The junior Earnhardt, was in his second full season on the main circuit. He finished second in Rookie of the Year standings in 2000. Dale Earnhardt Sr. cofounded Dale Earnhrdt Inc. with his wife Teresa early in his career. In 2001 he finally had a team that could compete. 

DEI's two drivers were in front on the final lap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed content to allow Michael Waltrip to get the win.  Waltrip had never won a cup series race in 462 starts. With his brother Darrell cheering him on the booth. After the checkered flag, it became clear that something was wrong. Dale Jr. raced to the side of his father's car as he was removed and taken to a hospital by ambulance. Michael Waltrip had expected Dale to come to the winner's circle. Instead, a track assistant passed on the news. Shortly after arriving at the Halifax Medical Center, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was pronounced dead. 

An investigation into the crash concluded that Earnhardt might have survived the crash if he was wearing the HANS head and neck support. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was the only driver not to use the HANS. After the crash, it became mandatory for all drivers.