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Driven to the Past: 9 Years Later, NASCAR’s 9/11 Moment Still Resonates

On September 11th, 2001 at 8:47 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into World Trade Center North. At 9:03 a.m., American Airlines Flight 175 followed suit, flying directly into World Trade Center South in a 20-minute barrage that changed our country forever.

By 10:28 a.m., both of the twin towers had collapsed and two more hijacked airplanes had crashed — one into the Pentagon and the other into a Pennsylvania field — brutally killing more than 3,000 innocent victims. It was the most tragic act of terrorism ever experienced by the United States of America.

Over NASCAR’s long and glorious history, the sport has provided many touching moments; from the 2001 Pepsi 400 won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his first visit to Daytona International Speedway since his father’s death to last year’s Coca-Cola 600 when NASCAR, despite fighting to complete the race before the rains came, stopped the racing action on the start/finish line to honor those that have died while in service.

Perhaps its most bone-chilling, tear-inducing moment, though, was the 2001 MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400. The race was held 12 days after 9/11 and was the first major motorsports event in the country since the attacks. Over 140,000 race fans filled the track, all with American flags. That day, NASCAR and Dover provided extended pre-race ceremonies with Tanya Tucker signing “God Bless America” and Lee Greenwood performing “God Bless the USA.”

Dale Jarrett started the race on the pole, with Bobby Labonte starting second and Earnhardt Jr. on the inside of the second row. Ironically, as the television broadcast honored the victims and their family and friends on lap 3 — just as they had honored Dale Earnhardt Sr. previously in the year — Dale Jr. took the lead from that third starting spot.

Dale Jr. held the point for much of the early going, until it appeared Ricky Rudd would steal the show through the middle of the race. He led 160 consecutive laps at one point; however, a lap 345 crash with lapped-car Rusty Wallace ended his quest for victory and reopened the race battle between Earnhardt and Jarrett. Rudd wound up finishing third, but still paid a visit Wallace in the garage after the race for an old-fashioned scuffle after the incident wiped away a runaway lead and made his 169 laps led a moot point.

Jarrett, who battled hard with Earnhardt for the lead on the restart, also wrecked in the closing laps. Following an incident with Tony Stewart, Jarrett spun on lap 388 and finished 12th after leading 18 circuits and running solidly in the top 10 throughout much of the race.

With both Rudd and Jarrett now out of the picture, Earnhardt Jr. ran off with the race over the last seven laps under green, winning by 1.576 seconds. It was his fourth career win and second of the tragic 2001 season.

Jerry Nadeau, Rudd, Jeff Gordon and Stewart rounded out the top-five finishers behind Earnhardt Jr., with then-rookie Kevin Harvick, Joe Nemechek, Sterling Marlin, then-rookie Casey Atwood and Bobby Hamilton completing the top 10.

Earnhardt Jr. led 193 laps in the race that featured 13 lead changes among seven drivers. It was a dominating performance that should have led to a great celebration. Instead, Dale Jr. grabbed Old Glory and took her for a ride around the track, a gripping moment of remembrance that reminded us all of what’s really important.

“I didn’t do a burnout when I won because my daddy said that takes too much toll on the cars,” Earnhardt said after the race. “So, I grabbed the American flag and made a Polish victory lap to show the fans we’re all just people. We (drivers) put our pants on the same way they do.”

The picture of this victory lap is still, nine years later, embedded into the minds of NASCAR fans and the entire grieving country.

It’s also still embedded in mine.

At the time of the attacks, I was in third grade — three days away from my ninth birthday. I lived in a small town in southern Iowa so I knew of what I — and everyone else — thought was a plane crash before I went to school that morning. However, by the time I got to school, things had changed dramatically. A second plane had crashed into the other World Trade Center and it was revealed that this was much more than a weird coincidence.

I can remember having to be told what exactly terrorism was. Before Sept. 11, there was no way an 8-year-old could be expected to know the evil, the hatred and destruction behind such a word. Yet despite multiple explanations, I still don’t really think I was able to grasp exactly what was going on and the complexity of everything involved — besides that it was very, very serious and something everyone around me was concerned about.

As the week progressed, I witnessed the many newscasts of post-9/11. On them, I saw the carnage of what had unfolded and I saw the thousands of people who were mourning those that they had just lost. As a NASCAR fan back then, I was an avid Dale Jr. fan. I watched the race that day with full-on Dale Jr. apparel after more than a week for the attacks to sink into my brain. Finally, I was starting to appreciate the magnitude of what these attacks meant to America, the fans, and my life for the foreseeable future growing up.

As I watched my favorite sail to victory that day, I was elated – but nothing compared to what happened once the checkers flew. It wasn’t only because Earnhardt Jr. was opening a can of you-know-what on the field, but that my favorite sport, with the help of my favorite driver, had just helped America heal.

Looking back on that day, that was the first step for many Americans for whom NASCAR was a passion, a respite from the hard times in everyday life. We will never forget 9/11, and those who lost loved ones on that tragic day will never fully heal. But those 400 laps of old school, nail-biting competition allowed us to take a small step on a big flight of stairs back to normalcy. As the race concluded and reality sank back in, the entire country cried as Dale Jr. carried that American flag around the track.

On that day, I was proud to be an American and a NASCAR fan, relishing a moment that all of us who viewed it will surely never forget.

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