top of page

THE 2001 DAYTONA 500

Pictured above is Michael Waltrip winning the 2001 Daytona 500. It was easily the most cruelly ironic sports day of my 58 years on this planet and maybe in modern sports history. For some bizarre reason, I keep being drawn back to the memory of this day. It is one of two specifically horrible days from 2001 etched in my memory. It won't take much imagination to come up with the other one.

For those not familiar with the story, hold on. It's a mad-for-the-movies tragic story that was all too real. For full disclosure, my children. my wife and myself saw it happen live.

If there was a Charlie Brown of NASCAR (The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), Michael Waltrip was that guy. Waltrip had raced for 15 years without a victory. He was 0 for 462. You read that right. 462 races with no victories.

As if that were not bad enough, he spent nearly all that time in the shadows of his brother Darrell Waltrip and his best friend Dale Earnhardt Sr. Those 2 guys had won a combined 160 races and 10 season championships while poor Michael was sitting there with a giant goose egg. Earnhardt and DW were considered two of the greatest in the history of the sport.

To rub further salt in the wound, Dale Earnhardt Jr (pictured above in 2nd) had only been racing a couple of years and already notched a handful of wins.

Even Waltrip's other good friend Ken Shrader, who only had 4 career wins, ribbed Waltrip about having none.

Then Waltrip's buddy decided to give him a break. Dale Earnhardt Sr. decided to hire Michael Waltrip to drive for him. The move was derided by many who thought Michael was a hopeless cause.

The first test of this new relationship was the 2001 Daytona 500.

Early on in the race, it would have seemed that the doubters were right, as Waltrip lagged way back in the pack. As the race wore on, though, the plan started falling into place and in the late stages it was Waltrip who was out front.

I remember watching the end of the race live with my family thinking wow! Michael Waltrip is finally going to win a race and it's the biggest one of all.

It was setting up to be a story book ending.

As they entered the final turn of the final lap, Waltrip was leading the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr was running second, Dale SR was 3rd and Shrader, Sterling Marlin and Rusty Wallace were basically tied for 4th.

As they came off turn 4, two things happened.

One of them was poetry as Michael Waltrip's car rocketed to the finish line with Earnhardt Jr running 2nd. Darrell Waltrip was now an announcer with Fox Sports and was literally calling his kid brother home. "come on got it! You got it ! You got it!

However, if you look carefully, you will see the flag man waving 2 flags- the winning checkered flag and a yellow "caution" flag that signals an accident has occurred on the track.

At the same moment, Waltrip's dream was apparently coming true, the #3 car of Dale Earnhardt Sr was clipped by Sterling Marlin and hit the outside wall along with Ken Shrader.

It was a horrific crash and I knew immediately that Earnhardt was likely to be seriously hurt.

The two cars came to rest in the grass. Ken Shrader climbed from his car to check on his friend. As he walked over to the Earnhardt car and looked inside you could see him frantically waving his arms to the rescue crew. It was obvious that the situation was dire.

Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip and his team are celebrating a Daytona 500 victory, blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding literally hundreds of feet away. A crying Darrell Waltrip, over joyed at his brother's triumph said those words.

"Oh this is great! I just hope Dale's ok. I guess he's alright, isn't he?

The irony was just stark to watch and nothing portrayed it more clearly then the change in Waltrip's facial expression when Shrader gave him the news that his best friend was in real trouble.

Ken Shrader later said that he used the term real trouble because he wasn't a doctor and it wasn't his place to announce this kind of thing.

but he soon as he looked in that car....he knew.

Maybe that's why he wore the sunglasses so maybe Waltrip couldn't see his eyes.

but Waltrip got the message that the situation was not good, nonetheless.

Millions of devastated fans got the news about 2 hours later that Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt was dead. In the words of Michael Waltrip, what was supposed to be his best day ever became his worst.

Almost 22 years later this tragic day still hits me in some way I am struggling to understand. It's like there is some cosmic ultra-religious message here that I am supposed to decipher.

Is it a pessimist's closing argument? Is it a force-your-eyes higher on what really matters? Is it "Be alert for you know not when the master comes?"

There are so many ways you can look at it and I have been trying to make sense of it ever since.

Maybe it is because I can draw so many parallels from my own life and my family's life about tragedy striking ever single time it looks like you are going to get a break. Maybe that's the message, after all.

In this time, in this place, there is never going to be that perfect day. Sorrow will always be in the shadows, lurking. The Bible even says blessed are those who mourn.

It just goes against our nature. We want to celebrate. We want our victories. Maybe the reason this memory hangs over me like a shadow is because it reminds me soberly that sorrow always follows after the happiness. In this case, it just came a lot faster than usual.


bottom of page