The Frontstretch: These Are the Moments by Amy Henderson -- Friday October 9, 2009

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These Are the Moments

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday October 9, 2009


I wrote last week that one thing that makes NASCAR worth watching is the moments. Those brief seconds when time seems to stop will never let you quit watching, just in case you miss one. And there have been a lot of them over the years — moments that take your breath away. Sometimes with simple beauty, sometimes with mind-numbing tragedy, but for whatever reason, there’s something defining about each one.

Some moments stand out in the mind of every fan — everyone you ask can remember where they were when it happened. Others are personal, forgotten by all but the fans to whom they meant something more.

It would take volumes to list all of the moments that fill the racing lives of everyone involved with the sport, so I’ll stick to this decade. But here are a few of my personal racing moments—the images that I’ll always remember.

I wish that the first moment that comes to mind was for a better reason, but the day we lost Dale Earnhardt pushes to the forefront, no matter what. I was watching with family, and the room was decidedly pro-Michael Waltrip finally breaking his career-long winless streak. We cheered as he crossed the finish line first. We saw the crash, of course, but it didn’t look that bad. Most fans watching that day would agree — it didn’t look that bad.

But then there was the frantic note in Darrell Waltrip’s voice that made you wonder and the automatic, shocked reaction of Ken Schrader that made you know that it was that bad. My memory of that post-race is spotty, peppered with images—Junior running, Michael Waltrip’s victory celebration turning somber, and finally Mike Helton saying the words that I think we all knew by then were coming: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” For me, that was the moment any shard of innocence about the sport was lost.

Jimmie Johnson heading to Victory Lane to congratulate his best friend, Casey Mears, on his first Cup win is a moment Amy Henderson will never forget.

It wasn’t the first on-track death I’d seen. I was at New Hampshire the day after Adam Petty was killed in a practice wreck when the cold, steady drizzle never stopped on a day that was forcasted to be sunny and almost unseasonably warm. I was there when Kenny Irwin died in an eerily similar wreck in the same corner, practicing for the very next race. I remember the stunned silence of the crowd as the news began to trickle through the stands. But the moment that stands out from that day was the stunning double rainbow that appeared in a cloudless sky over Turn 3. That image has never left me. We lost Tony Roper that year, too, but it wasn’t until the following spring, when we lost a man who we all secretly thought would live forever, that I finally understood that while racing is beautiful, it also takes, and what it takes is cruel and unpleasant.

Another, bittersweet, moment would come a few weeks later when rookie driver Kevin Harvick won in just his third start, beating Jeff Gordon in spectacular fashion for the win in Atlanta. Sure, the car was white now instead of the badass black it had been for so long and the number 3 replaced as well, but the same men built it and gave their all to make it a winner despite crushing grief. For them, it was time.

Not all the moments are tragic, though there would be another in 2004—more on that later. But some have brought smiles rather than tears. How about a road course race in 2000, where a thoroughly average Nationwide Series rookie discovered what happens when you go sailing over the top of a hill only to discover that you have no brakes. What happens is, you kind of hover for a second, fly over the sand traps like they aren’t even there, and bury your car door deep in the retaining wall at what seems like about 200 miles an hour. For an added bonus, you have no idea the retaining wall is padded with huge blocks of Styrofoam, so you’re pretty sure you’re going to die. So when you come to rest against that wall and realize that you are, in fact, still alive, you’re so thrilled with that prospect that you jump up on the roof like you just won the race. Just to make sure you look like a dork, you have a goofy haircut, too. That thoroughly average rookie driver earned a fan that day with his sheer joy. Oh, and he turned out to be anything but average, too. Jimmie Johnson has three Sprint Cup championships and is gunning for a fourth. No more goofy haircut, though.

There are so many others, and they jumble in time but not in clarity—*the above-mentioned three-time champion congratulating his best friend in victory lane* after his first win, looking happier than if he had won the race himself, the day Dale Earnhardt, Jr. stood on his own and announced his leavetaking from Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the heart dropping fear when a car first lifts off the track and considers flight, the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping finish at Darlington between Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven when neither driver gave an inch, but neither would take an inch by misdeed, either.

There is that fall day in 2004 at Martinsville when the victory celebration was quelled as race winner Jimmie Johnson and his teammates were whisked away and told of the plane crash that would devastate their team. But the bigger moment, to me, came a week later when Johnson won again, and the entire organization gathered in victory lane to celebrate and heal. And the stolen moment in which Johnson paused in the midst of the victory photos to wipe the tears.

I remember the feeling a couple of years ago at the All-Star race, waiting to see if a friend would get the coveted fan vote and the moment when NASCAR called three cars to tech for the night’s feature—the top finishers in the Open, and the No. 78-the underfunded, outclassed entry for Kenny Wallace. If you listened on the scanner that night, you knew before they announced Wallace at driver introductions, and it was a satisfying knowledge. There was no storybook ending in the form of a win that night, but the journey was enough in that moment.

And for me, maybe the journey is the moment, in a way, for there will always be something to look forward to. It could be something big or something small, something painful or something joyful, but it will strike home like an arrow and leave you changed, somehow, with its mere existence. There’s a line from a song that says, “I had my moments.” Yes, NASCAR, you certainly have.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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10/09/2009 06:51 AM

A couple of my moments involve Danny ‘Chocolate’ Myers, Dale Sr.‘s longtime gas man. The first is this huge bear of a man with tears streaming down his face when that #3 finally won the Daytona 500. The next is remembering that he was the first crew member to get to Dale, Jr. when he won the at Daytona that July, giving him a huge bear hug.

Dans Mom
10/09/2009 07:20 AM

- The first new and improved Labor Day Race at California.

- Jimmie Johnson’s SECOND win at the Brickyard proving he can win an all out race, AND a shoot out

- The First COT Race


The Turnip!
10/09/2009 08:07 AM


The day Brain Farce started ruining, I mean running, NA$CRAP!

It is been a dark and gloomy scenario ever since!

And folks, that’s my “NA$CRAP MOMENT”!

M.B. Voelker
10/09/2009 08:38 AM

2005, Dover, spring I think but I’m not 100% certain. One of the most senior veterans in what was supposed to be his last full season spent the day racing the youngest rookie.

After the race, on pit road, that veteran walked over to the rookie and the cameras caught an unforgettable moment. We may never know what Mark Martin whispered into Kyle Busch’s ear but we saw the hug.

I’ll always remember what seemed to me as my first favorite driver throwing the torch to a new generation of stars.

L Taylor
10/09/2009 09:38 AM

Dale Sr. Driving through the field on a restart at Dega. Made up about ten spots in 2-3 laps and won.

Gave me the willies.

10/09/2009 11:05 AM

I was at Martinsville the day of the plane crash, and I remember how cloudy it was and Jimmie not going to Victory Lane after the announcement. Had thoroughly enjoyed myself up to that point. That was the day the Rusty-Newman feud got into full swing too.

10/09/2009 11:33 AM

Yes L, what a memory, and Dale did it through the middle of the pack. I think at the time he was one of a few that really “understood” the draft and how to make it work for him and against the other drivers. That was also his 76th and final WC points victory.

10/09/2009 12:29 PM

Tony’s first Brickyard win will be something I wont ever forget. I don’t think any Tony fans had a dry eyes after that win.

10/09/2009 01:10 PM

IIRC, Dale Sr was 17th with 5 laps to go at Dega. That was an awesome run – goosebumps galore. And the only #3 diecast car I have of his.

For me, there are a few, in no particular order.
Steve Park flipping and resting sideways at Infineon.
Allison/Petty at the finish of the all-star race (‘92?).
Harvick with one to go at Daytona 2007.
G.Bodines truck tearing apart at Daytona.
Earnhardt/LaBonte at Bristol in the “rattle his cage” fight.
Not seeing, but reading about Spencer punching Kurt Busch.
Ricky Rudds “yip-yip” comment about Harvick (Richmond?)
Kurts “has-beens and never-wases” comment.
Gordon passing Earhardt in turn two at Daytona in the infamous “crushed car still runs” race.
All classics fer sure.
..and so many more.

Bad Wolf
10/09/2009 02:06 PM


The great moments you speak of during the last decade seem to be more about the story lines and not actual on track racing action. If that’s what gets you fired up more power to you, but that’s pretty much the reason I left.

My greatest memories happened from the late ’60s to the time Brain France took over and threw a hand grenade into the sport.

My all time greatest moment was the ’76 Daytona 500, pure on track racing action between Petty and Peirson.

John Potts
10/09/2009 02:36 PM

Good stuff, Amy.

10/09/2009 03:10 PM

Melissa, that was my moment, too. Tony’s Brickyard win was extra special for those us who were heartbroken that our fellow Hoosier never won the Indy 500.

Bad Wolf
10/09/2009 04:34 PM

One more greatest Nascar memory, again before King Brain the First.

Being at the Brickyard in the Tower Terrace in ’95 when Dale Earnhardt won the Brickyard 400.

10/09/2009 10:29 PM

I remember the morning, after a mostly sleepless night, finding out that Davey didn’t make it. I remember the amazing strength the Allison family showed after losing two sons and almost a father.
I also remember the sad demise of the 28 and Yates Racing.
But the one thing that thankfully never changes, no matter the state of NA$CAR today, is the unfettered compassion of the teams when tragedy strikes.

10/11/2009 10:15 AM

Amy….Excellent !!! You’re right..there are sad as well as great moments. Kulwicki, Davey, Bonnett, Adam, Irwin and Dale. I remember the morning after Kulwicki’s death…the track (Bristol) was foggy and a lone transporter (#7)sat on the track waiting for the exit gate to open.
…Ned coaching Dale from the announcer’s box at Daytona.
…Craven and Busch Darlington. ...Dale Sr. Daytona.
…Dale giving B.Labonte a love tap at Bristol.
…Mayfield giving Dale a love tap at Pocono…and Dale letting Jeremy know what he thought about it with his “finger”.
…Jarrett clinching at the inaugural Homestead.
…Petty/Pearson spinning at the end of Daytona.
…The shape of Petty’s car at his last race.
…Ricky Craven flying over the guard rail.
…and last but not least…I remember when a Ford looked like a Ford and a Chevy looked like a Chevy.

10/11/2009 10:17 PM

When a waiter at the Waldorf Astoria brought newly-crowned champion Jeff Gordon a glass of milk to toast the previous champion, and Ol’ Ironhead graciously rose with a glass of wine to return to toast to “Wonderboy.”

I would have sworn that then-teammate Kenny Schrader put Jeff up to that, but had the opportunity to ask and learned that it was, in fact, Jeff’s idea.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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