The Frontstretch: Racing At The Beach : Tragedy, Triumph, And New Faces, 2001-2006 by Matt McLaughlin -- Tuesday February 13, 2007

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Racing At The Beach : Tragedy, Triumph, And New Faces, 2001-2006

Countdown To Daytona Beach · Matt McLaughlin · Tuesday February 13, 2007


Editor’s Note : The following is the last of Matt McLaughlin’s 11-part series on the history of racing at Daytona. Miss any of the previous editions? Don’t worry…we have the links for you here. We hope you’ve enjoyed the first of what we hope will be several history series on NASCAR races during the season!

Part One 1949-1958
Part Two 1959 (The First Daytona 500)
Part Three 1960-1964
Part Four 1965-1970
Part Five 1971-1975
Part Six 1976-1980
Part Seven 1981-1985
Part Eight 1986-1989
Part Nine 1990-1993
Part Ten 1994-2000

The 2000 edition of the Great American Race wasn't very good, but come 2001 NASCAR thought they'd developed a solution to ensure good racing at Daytona. A small spoiler called the "taxicab strip" was added to the roof of the Cup cars; NASCAR officials hoped the cars would punch a bigger hole in the air with the strip, allowing for more passing despite the restrictor plates. Whether the strip actually made for better racing is highly debatable; what was of greater importance was how drivers quickly reported the strips made the closing rate on a car ahead frighteningly fast. That led to some dangerous and ultimately tragic racing that unforgettable February afternoon.

The “Big One” occurred that day on lap 175, and it eliminated eighteen cars, about half the field left running at that point in the race. How wild did things get? Tony Stewart, who had been running in third place, had his car go airborne and upside down. The No. 20 car landed on the roof of his teammate Bobby Labonte's car, despite the fact Labonte was running thirty-somethingth when the wreck began. For all the talk of restrictor plates being in place to protect the fans, Stewart’s car darn near did land in the grandstands; luckily, he was unhurt.

The race was red-flagged to allow the track to be cleaned up. When racing resumed, teammates Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. teamed up front to try to break away from the pack. On the final lap things got dicey. Dale Earnhardt the original, Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace and Ken Schrader were running in tight quarters behind the D.E.I. teammates, desperate for their shot at 500 glory. Down the backstretch they flew, jockeying for position…and then it happened.

That famous black No. 3 car got hooked sideways entering the third turn, jerked sideways and hit the wall nose first. Schrader was unable to avoid that black Chevy and ran into the side of the No. 3. Both Schrader and Earnhardt's car slid down the track and into the grass; by the standards of Daytona wrecks, it didn't look like much worse than a fender bender. TV cameras quickly panned away from the incident to show Michael Waltrip winning his first Cup race in over 400 attempts, while Junior took second.

But back in the trioval grass it was becoming clear something was very, very, wrong. Dale Earnhardt had not emerged from his car. His longtime friend Ken Schrader ran over to the No. 3 car, looked inside, and began frantically motioning for the rescue crews to step it up. He then went to Victory Lane and quietly told winner Michael Waltrip things had gone terribly wrong. The announcement wasn't made immediately, but folks watching events unfold knew there had been a tragedy. You could see it in the way Waltrip quickly became subdued, in the way Dale Junior and Teresa Eanhardt hustled away from the track and equally in the slow way the ambulance carrying Earnhardt's body left the track emergency lights lit but sirens silent. As FOX ended its first NASCAR broadcast Darrell Waltrip ended his comments by quietly adding "I sure hope Dale is all right." But Dale Earnhardt wasn't all right. He died in that final lap wreck. As news began emerging from those gathered at Halifax, NASCAR fans were stunned to learn a seven time champion and the face of the sport wad dead.

If I may editorialize for a moment, revisionist history now seems to state that Dale Earnhardt's death led NASCAR to mandate head restraints for drivers and the installation of SAFER barriers at all tracks hosting Cup events. Horse hockey. NASCAR eventually said that a broken seatbelt caused Dale's death. They said the SAFER barriers wouldn't work on banked tracks and that the HANS device's safety record was unproven. It actually wasn't until Blaise Alexander died on the final lap of a Charlotte ARCA race while battling for the lead that NASCAR finally threw in the towel; they required all drivers to wear some sort of head restraint and the wheels began in motion to have SAFER barriers installed at all tracks hosting Cup events.

In the 2002 Daytona 500, once again the race became a massive wreck-fest. The race event slowed fully nine times by cautions, and the "Big One" occurred on lap 139 on a restart, when Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick got into an argument over the same piece of real estate. The No. 29 car got sideways in front of the thundering pack, and once again, fully half of the cars left running were involved in the wreck.

The carnage continued on a lap 194 restart. Jeff Gordon led the pack slowly to the green flag, bunching the field up behind him. Eager to try to pass Gordon, Sterling Marlin got into the gas too fast and hit the 24 car. Behind them, another wreck was already beginning with Mark Martin running into the back of Michael Waltrip's car (which spun through the grass and dang near hit the pace car on pit road.) From there on it was Katy-Bar-The-Door as more cars drove into the pig pile, littering the front straightaway with debris. NASCAR quickly threw a red flag to clean up the mess.

And that's when one of the most bizarre incidents in 500 history took place. When he'd hit the 24 car, Marlin had knocked his fender into a front tire, so it seemed likely he would need to surrender the lead to head for the pits for repairs. The red flag in place, Sterling decided to climb out of his car and have a look at how bad the damage really was…and then, while stunned fans in the stands and at home on TV watched, Marlin grabbed hold of the fender and tried to yank it off the tire. The problem, of course, is that it is illegal to do any work on the car under the red flag. NASCAR officials leapt from the pace car and all but tackled Marlin to keep him from effecting further repairs. For his futile effort, Marlin was sent to the tail end of the field for the restart, and his chance at winning his third Daytona 500 all but disappeared.

That left a surprised Ward Burton as the race leader. Behind him, Elliott Sadler and a surprise underdog Geoff Bodine teamed up to try to run Burton down. But the No. 22 Caterpillar Dodge got a great restart and was able to hang on for the win, the biggest of Ward’s career to date.

Threatening clouds overhead dominated the conversation in the hours leading up to the 2003 500. The forecast was grim, calling for heavy rains that afternoon and into the night. A decision was made to push the start of the race up 23 minutes to try to get the event at least to the halfway point so nobody would have to come back Monday and FOX wouldn't have to take a commercial bath.

Early on in the race, things got ugly. Ken Schrader clipped Ryan Newman, sending the No. 12 car into the sodden infield grass. Newman's car flipped violently three and a half times, shedding its entire rearend assembly and both front wheels. Fortunately, no sizable debris bounced into the stands. Then the rains returned, causing the first of two rain delays that afternoon. During the delay, FOX reporter Jeannie Zelasko famously asked Schrader if a large clod of grass she saw lying in the garage area had come from his car…or from him. No doubt about it…the largest clod visible was the blonde one herself.

When racing resumed, prerace favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw his chances at victory eliminated when a failed alternator sent him to the garage for lengthy repairs. The whole dreary state of affairs mercifully came to an end when the rains returned in earnest shortly after the halfway point of the race. Michael Waltrip was declared the winner, giving him his second Daytona triumph in three years.

After his problems the previous year Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was notably confident in the week that led up to the 2004 Daytona 500. He stated plainly that he had the best car he'd ever driven at the track, and he was confident he'd do well. Of course his famous father had said the same thing many times, only to have several 500 victories slip from his grasp.

‘03 500 winner Michael Waltrip took a wild ride early in the 2004 edition of the Great Race. Rookies Johnny Sauter and Brian Vickers tangled, and Waltrip got the worst of it; his No. 15 car went tumbling wildly through the infield grass before coming to rest on its roof. Rescue workers had a time of it extracting the notably lanky Waltrip from his crushed Chevy until they rolled it back onto its wheels, exactly as Waltrip had been begging them to do since they came to his aid.

Late in the race, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. broke away from the pack and battled hard for the win. Stewart blocked Earnhardt several times, but Junior was finally able to fake high then make a power move down low to pass the No. 20 with twenty laps to go. From there, the No. 8 car set sail, to the delight of the highly partisan crowd. In just his fifth Daytona 500 start, Junior claimed the prize that had taken his father nineteen years to grasp. The younger Earnhardt spun through the infield grass to celebrate his win, just as his old man had in 1998.

After their third Daytona 500 win in four tries, it was clear the D.E.I. cars of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip had begun dominating the plate races with ease. But the rest of that season, the entries from Hendrick Motorsports made it clear that they intended to be players in the plate game as well, thank you very much. After the ’04 500, Jeff Gordon went on to win the next two plate races, the spring race at Talladega and the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, while Earnhardt set the universe back to right with a win in the Fall Talladega event (he'd finished second and third in the other two plate races). It was clear that the Hendrick and D.E.I. cars were the favorites going into the ’05 Daytona 500.

By the standards of the Daytona 500, the race was relatively incident free, but don't try telling that to Scott Wimmer who took a wild ride on lap 184 off the bumper of Greg Biffle's out of control Ford. Despite getting airborne, Wimmer was OK after the incident.

In the end, it came down to the race the pundits were expecting, with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. battling for the top spot. In the final five laps it was an epic battle, but Kurt Busch tipped the scales in favor of the No. 24 car, drafting with Gordon to get around the No. 8 Chevy. Busch went on to claim second in the race while Earnhardt had to settle for third.

Now, the 2006 Daytona 500…hey, this isn't really history; it happened last year! But it does seem like a long time ago, so for the benefit of those with short term memory problems, here it goes.

There were a couple big stories leading up to last year's 500. Jimmie Johnson's car failed technical inspection, and his crew chief Chad Knaus was sent home by NASCAR as a result. In the meantime, Tony Stewart put some folks on edge by saying the bumpdrafting out on the track had gotten so out of hand it was likely that someone was going to get killed during the race.

Oddly, it was Stewart who caused a lot of the carnage that Sunday. He put the No. 24 car into the wall, ending Gordon's shot at a win, and then for reasons apparent only to Stewart, he took such great exception at something Matt Kenseth had done that he purposely knocked him hard into the grass. That Kenseth's car didn't collect the entire field as it slid back up the track can only be seen as an act of Divine Intervention.

Jimmie Johnson had the strongest dog in the fight that afternoon, but at Daytona, the race doesn't always go to the strong. On the final lap, Ryan Newman tried to go high around Johnson to take the lead but Casey Mears decided to stick with the No. 48. Content to settle for second, Mears pushed Johnson to the win while Newman finished a disappointing third. As far as the rest of the Top 10, NASCAR might still be debating where everyone finished for all I know. It seemed to take forever to post the results of that race.

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