This is part two of a two-part story on seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt that appeared in the January 2021 edition of SPEED SPORT Magazine. Click here to read part one.
For millions of race fans around the world, it’s difficult to believe 20 years have passed since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt.
That day, Feb. 18, 2001, will be remembered as one of the darkest and most difficult in NASCAR history.
Ironically, Earnhardt appeared to be at his happiest during the final weekend of his life. He displayed an unmistakable confidence that radiated with his every move.
It was Daytona, a place he had mastered through 34 victories, including the Daytona 500, a race he tried to win for 20 years before finally securing the biggest victory of his 27-year career on Feb. 15, 1998.
Even though Earnhardt fell short of his eighth NASCAR Cup Series title in 2000, finishing second to Bobby Labonte, he and his Kevin Hamlin-led crew had made a statement that they were back in championship form.
In January 2001, many media outlets touted Earnhardt as the favorite to win an elusive eighth championship. The team was really clicking as the season began and Earnhardt was determined to win a second Daytona 500.
After wrapping up the 2000 campaign at Atlanta Motor Speedway in November, Earnhardt said, “I’m frustrated about letting the eighth championship slip away. But to think this is the only opportunity I’m going to have to win an eight championship, I don’t. I feel like I have several opportunities, next year and the year after that.
“Any time you get an opportunity to win a race, you are going to win the race,” he added. “I am never going to back off. I never want to run second. If I’m playing golf or baseball or running a foot race or playing cards or playing checkers, I want to win. I always want to win.”
Earnhardt was 49 years old when he won his final NASCAR Cup Series race on Oct. 15, 2000, at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, charging from 18th to the lead during the final five laps.
The magical victory made the bold statement that Earnhardt was back on top after several years of struggles.
“I thought all year in 2000 they (RCR) were definitely the ones to beat,” Labonte said. “They had gotten better and stronger team-wise. I know that whole crowd was disappointed that they didn’t win the championship, but that gave them a boost going into the 2001 season. It told them they were right where they needed to be to win it. They were definitely more competitive in 2000 than a year or two leading up to that season.”
In typical Earnhardt fashion, his schedule during Speedweeks at Daytona was busy. In 2001, it included competing in the 24 Hours At Daytona with Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins and Dale Earnhardt Jr. They wheeled a Chevrolet Corvette C5-R to a second-place finish in class during the twice-around-the-clock classic.
Earnhardt also participated in the traditional Bud Shootout and the Thursday qualifying races. It was one of the few occasions he didn’t win one of those races, but he finished second to Tony Stewart in the Shootout
Still, Earnhardt did not allow those shortcomings to dampen his spirits because winning a second Daytona 500 was a definite possibility.
Earnhardt was uncharacteristically joyful during many interviews with FOX Sports during the week as the network was preparing to broadcast its first NASCAR race to a national audience.
Retired three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip joined the broadcast as an analyst and enjoyed a candid interview with Earnhardt for SPEED only two days before the Daytona 500.
It was one of the best interviews ever conducted with the seven-time champion, who discussed his career, his family, being at peace with himself, winning the 500 and having it all. Waltrip, a good friend of Earnhardt’s, said it was the happiest he had seen him in years.
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