The time Earnhardt broke a Daytona habit two weeks before he died

The time Earnhardt broke a Daytona habit two weeks before he died

Throughout his career, it was something of a running joke to see how Dale Earnhardt would fail to win NASCAR’s Daytona 500.

‘The Intimidator’ had seven Cup titles in his pocket, one of the most iconic liveries in motorsport history in his #3 black Goodwrench Chevrolet, and was considered ‘the man to beat’ in the Daytona 500.

But yet, every year, he was beaten. Whether it be last lap punctures or caution flags, Earnhardt could not buy victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, until 1998 when he finally claimed the race he had been trying to since 1976.

Come 2001, and Earnhardt, nicknamed ‘Old Ironhead’ was finally back to full fitness after an injury-plagued few years, and actually had a piece of iron removed from his forehead which had been lodged there since the 1970s.

To prepare for the 2001 Cup season, Earnhardt, for the first and only time in his career, took part in the Daytona 24 Hours – two weeks before the 500 in which he was killed in a final lap accident.

Earnhardt in the 24 Hours

In order to get his road course racing back into shape, Earnhardt agreed to team up with son Dale Earnhardt Jr, Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins in a Chevrolet (naturally) Corvette, adorned with the #3.

Earnhardt’s car would go on to finish fourth overall in the race, as he completed a long-held ambition to race in the 24 Hours.

It was not a trouble-free run however, with a loose rear end stymieing chances of pushing for the win, with a gearbox change also needed, although Earnhardt’s stints in tricky wet conditions were a stand-out on Sunday morning.

After dusting himself down, he then switched focus to the day-job, and preparing for the Daytona 500 itself.

For the first-time ever in Speedweeks at Daytona, Earnhardt did not win any of the races.

He failed to win the Clash, or his duel event and headed into the 500 determined to kick off the campaign with a win.

As it would happen, the Richard Childress Racing driver also had his own team in the race, Dale Earnhardt, Inc (DEI), with drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr running up near the front.

As the pack roared around the oval for the 200th and final time, Waltrip was leading from Jr with Earnhardt Sr running third, but was swallowed up in the pack rounding Turn 4.

Contact was made and he was spat into the concrete barrier, suffering a basilar skull fracture, similar to the injury sustained by Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994.

His death would usher in a new safety push in NASCAR, as many drivers felt if it could happen to Earnhardt, then it could them, with the HANS device and full helmets being made mandatory.

Much like the safety push after the death of Ayrton Senna – who Earnhardt paid tribute to after winning at Talladega on May 1st 1994 – racing was made much safer, but Dale Earnhardt had to die.


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