NASCAR history can be measured in several ways, whether it be decades, the presence of certain drivers or various championship point formats. For myself and many others in the NASCAR industry, there is the way things were before 2001 and the way things were after it. It’s debatable, but I’d argue that no full season saw a greater difference between the beginning and the end than 2001.
Before the cars even hit the track at Daytona International Speedway, there were already two changes of monumental significance in place. The first of these was the return of Dodge to the sport. Dodge had been working on a return to NASCAR, which had been populated at the highest level solely by Chevrolet, Ford, and Pontiac for six years. The catalyst for this comeback was the participation by Dodge in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Then, the manufacturer scored a massive personnel coup as they gathered up drivers and owners, specifically when Ray Evernham announced that he would be spearheading the effort as well as owning a two-car Dodge team.
Considering the success Evernham had enjoyed with Jeff Gordon in the 1990s, this was seismic in the NASCAR world. In addition to the Evernham team of Bill Elliott and rookie Casey Atwood, Bill Davis Racing, Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates Racing, Petty Enterprises and Melling Racing switched to Dodge.
Then, the longtime television broadcast deal was reworked with new partners FOX and NBC replacing ABC/ESPN, CBS/TNN and TBS. FOX, which had spent the previous years piling up awards for their innovative NFL coverage, would feature a unique lineup of experienced broadcasters Mike Joy and Chris Myers, alongside retired championship-winning driver Darrell Waltrip and crew chief Larry McReynolds.
FOX brought multiple new enhancements, such as a segment called “Crank It Up,” where the announcers would refrain from speaking for two to three minutes, making the sound of the cars the only audio provided. This encouraged viewers to turn the volume on their television up to simulate the experience of being at the track. The network also pioneered “FoxTrax,” where a cursor would point out up to three specific cars in a pack, making it easier for viewers to see a certain car among the massive group of cars in an era that preceded high definition images.
The season began in impressive fashion, with many of the Speedweeks events at Daytona seeing double-digit lead change increases over the previous season. But the events on the final lap of the Daytona 500 set a completely different tone to the season.
While Michael Waltrip flashed across the line to earn his first career win, his owner and friend was swept up in the melee that erupted behind him in turn 3. For anyone who wasn’t watching that day, it’s difficult to explain what that was like.
On a personal note, I grew up a fan of Dale Earnhardt. The black No. 3 was NASCAR to me. Like many others, when the crash happened, I thought that it was unfortunate but he could rebound the next week. The interview with Ken Schrader, coupled with the image of Dale Earnhardt Jr sprinting towards the infield care center was my inclination that there might be something wrong. The deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in the previous nine months had been sobering reminders that this sport was still a very dangerous form of entertainment. But the idea that the legendary Man in Black would fall victim to such a tragic fate seemed unthinkable.
Moments seemed like hours. There was no Twitter to refresh, no full-time up-to-the minute source of racing news to stare at in search of a slight tidbit of information. The race had gone a bit long, so after FOX went off the air at 5 p.m. ET, there wasn’t anywhere to turn. Then came the breaking news at just before 7 p.m. With a precious few utterances from then-NASCAR President Mike Helton, the exuberant innocence of the sport was shattered in a moment.
The NASCAR world was crushed, but as they had many times before, the people who made the sport what it was rose together as one. The opening ceremony the following weekend at Rockingham Speedway made me proud to be a NASCAR fan and even more proud to be an Earnhardt fan.
The show went on, and Steve Park, another driver at Dale Earnhardt Inc., put on a stirring tribute. Park held off Bobby Labonte, the driver that his former team owner had been runner-up to only one year prior, to score a wildly popular win.
The tribute continued two weeks later at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick, the NASCAR Xfinity Series standout that had been put in the car that Dale Earnhardt drove, held off Jeff Gordon in a photo finish that mirrored the one Earnhardt had when he won the race in 2000 with Labonte alongside. During his celebratory burnout, Harvick held three fingers aloft out his car window in a salute to the seven-time champion.
As the season progressed, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon emerged as the most-significant title contenders. Come April, two challenges presented a unique, but unsettling obstacle for drivers and teams. The first was the race at Talladega Superspeedway. It would be the first time the series would run a restrictor plate track since Earnhardt’s death two months prior. Interestingly enough, it was also the site of his final NASCAR Cup Series win in 2000. The drivers implored one another to be smart and respectful during the race. Apparently, it worked, because for only the second time in history, a race at Talladega was completed without a caution flag.
Then, on April 29, the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway took place on what would have been Earnhardt’s 50th birthday. His longtime adversary Rusty Wallace claimed the win and took a victory lap with a black flag emblazoned with Earnhardt’s car and signature.
Into the summer months, Gordon began to distance himself from Jarrett. Additionally, Jarrett’s teammate Ricky Rudd went on a hot streak that established him as a championship-caliber driver. But looming on the horizon was an even more intimidating hurdle: the Independence Day weekend return to Daytona. With just a few laps to go, the field lined up for a restart. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had endured a miserable season, both on and off the track up to that point. But on that night, he would not be denied. The younger Earnhardt sliced through the pack to retake the lead and claimed his first win of the year. The image of him standing on his car alongside Waltrip has taken on a life of its own in the years since.
While Jarrett faltered, Gordon continued to win and Sterling Marlin joined Rudd as a possible title threat. Marlin landed the first win for Dodge since its return in August at Michigan International Speedway, and Rudd would pick up his second victory of 2001 at Richmond Raceway, just three days before life in America would change forever.
Just as Earnhardt’s death marked the end of innocence in NASCAR, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, marked a similar end of innocence for the entire country. The world screeched to a halt. For a moment, there were no planes in the sky. There was fear, sadness, panic. The teams were told to stay home that weekend, as the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway would be moved to the final race of the year, the day after Thanksgiving.
When racing resumed the following week at Dover International Speedway, the evidence of patriotism was everywhere. American flags waved throughout the stands and were featured prominently on nearly every car. For the second time in less than three months, a prominent return became an Earnhardt Jr. win, as Little E scored the victory.
Gordon continued to outpace the field and got further away in points as the season wound down. Marlin would win again at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it was starting to feel like too little, too late. Then, the yearlong tribute kept on coming, this time at Talladega, the site of Earnhardt’s final win just one year prior. And as he had twice already that year, Earnhardt Jr. stole the show. Earnhardt swept into the lead late to pick up the first of eventually four consecutive wins on the 2.66-mile Alabama tri-oval.
Gordon would go on to claim the championship, and despite his dominance, an astonishing 19 drivers managed to win a Cup race in 2001, including five for the first time in their respective careers. It seemed fitting that Gordon would win the title. It was Gordon who won his first title (1995) the season after Earnhardt won his last (1994), a moment now viewed as a symbolic passing of the torch.
While FOX and NBC still carry races today, the praise for both has shifted to a more negative reaction from the masses. The coverage may lack in many areas, but what they brought to the sport cannot be discounted. 2001 featured the highest number of races on network television ever up to that point, enabling the viewing audience to get a much more extensive look at the sport on a week-to-week basis.
The death of the Intimidator brought about the most incredible advancements in driver safety to date. Soft walls, otherwise known as the SAFER barrier, were developed as a direct result of the fatal crash to lessen the blow that the car and driver had to absorb. The Head and Neck Restraint system, or HANS device, was mandated by NASCAR officials in an effort to improve the likelihood that a driver would survive such a collision. And while a flop from a competition standpoint, the Car of Tomorrow was full of specially designed safety features that existed for one simple reason: to keep the sport from having to bury any more of its talented stars.
Twenty years later, it has done just that.