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Lars Anderson
February 21, 2011
Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500, but even as the green flag flies for this year's race and a new Sprint Cup season, his legacy is felt throughout the sport—and in the lives of three men in particular
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February 21, 2011

Number 3 Still Roars Ten Years After

Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500, but even as the green flag flies for this year's race and a new Sprint Cup season, his legacy is felt throughout the sport—and in the lives of three men in particular

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Waltrip stopped racing full time after the '09 season, concentrating instead on transforming MWR into a title-contending operation. It's not there yet—the team has just two wins in the last two years—but MWR is widely regarded in the garage as an up-and-comer in the sport. "This year I'm very confident that one of our drivers will get into the Chase," Waltrip says. "And when that happens, I'll smile because Dale will have played a part in that."

For four months last year Waltrip collaborated with writer Ellis Henican on a book detailing the day Earnhardt died. (Last week In the Blink of an Eye was No. 11 on The New York Times best-seller list.) Lying on a couch in his office with a glass of red wine in his hands, Waltrip would talk deep into the night as Henican pecked away at his keyboard. "For a long time I believed that if you ignored the pain it would go away," Waltrip says. "Well it didn't. As hard as it was, I needed to deal with it." These were as much therapy sessions for Waltrip as writing marathons, because talking about the day everything changed for him—and for NASCAR—helped him overcome a feeling that haunted him ever since he saw Schrader in Victory Lane: guilt.

Over the last several laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt rode around the 2.5-mile track in third place while two of the cars he owned ran in first (driven by Waltrip) and second (driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr.). Watching a replay of the last five laps on a computer screen in his office on a recent rainy morning, Waltrip pointed out how Earnhardt deftly blocked other cars from making a charge at his two DEI drivers in the closing laps. Yet Waltrip now believes, after closely studying the final lap, that Earnhardt wasn't blocking when his number 3 Chevy wiggled slightly as Sterling Marlin closed from behind, veered left toward the lower portion of the track, took an abrupt right, got hit on the passenger side by Schrader, then barreled into the wall nearly head-on.

"Dale was just trying to get third," Waltrip says. "Maybe he was thinking that he could get a run on everyone coming out of Turn 4. But the race was over. Junior and I had pulled away, so there was no need to block. That always hurt me when people said he was blocking for me, because it almost felt like it was my fault that he died. But I don't think that anymore. I really don't. He died racing, simple as that."


There isn't one aspect of my life that Dale Sr. doesn't continue to influence today," says Kevin Harvick. "There's absolutely nothing in my life that didn't change the day he passed away."

Harvick watched the 2001 Daytona 500 in the living room of his home in Winston-Salem, N.C. As soon as the race ended, he turned off the television, believing that Earnhardt would walk away from the wreck, which looked relatively innocuous compared with other harrowing crashes Earnhardt had survived. Harvick, then 25, was competing full time in the Busch (now called Nationwide) Series for owner Richard Childress and aspired to eventually race at the Cup level. Childress believed Harvick was still a year away from being ready to be Earnhardt's teammate at RCR, but those plans quickly changed. Three days after Earnhardt's death, Harvick was watching television with his fiancée, DeLana, when the phone rang. It was Childress. "Can you come to the shop right now?" he asked. "We've got to talk."

Harvick immediately drove five miles in the night to the RCR headquarters. He stepped into Childress's office. Kevin Hamlin, a former crew chief for Earnhardt, sat in a chair sipping Jack Daniel's while Childress was behind his desk. "We want you to drive the car," Childress said, referring to Earnhardt's now vacant seat. "If you say yes, your life is going to change dramatically."

Harvick quickly agreed, and two days later at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, he walked into a press tent and was immediately overwhelmed by hundreds of flashbulbs popping in his face. Before this moment Harvick, who had yet to make a single start in the Cup series, had never talked to more than a handful of reporters; now he sat before hundreds for a press conference that was broadcast live on national television. "I didn't know Dale well, but my devastation came from seeing everyone else's devastation on that team," Harvick says today. "I honestly didn't know what the hell I was doing."

With Earnhardt's pit crew working on the now number 29 Chevy (Earnhardt's number 3 hasn't been used again in the Cup series), Harvick finished 14th at Rockingham. Two days later he and DeLana were married at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas—"It was nice to see some guys on the team actually smiling at our reception," Harvick says—and 11 days after that he drove Earnhardt's old car, now painted white, to Victory Lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And just like that, Harvick, who weeks earlier could walk through the grandstands at any track in America and go unrecognized, inherited a large portion of Earnhardt's massive fan base, most of whom still back him today.

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