By all that is right and proper – and if God had been a little nicer – this would have been the happiest day of Michael Waltrip’s life. There is no doubt that his victory in the 2001 Daytona 500 would have redeemed all those disappointments on the track throughout the first 462 starts of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
But what happened as Waltrip won that 500 mile overshadowed anything he had done before or needed to do in the future.
As “Mikey” took his first checkered flag, his team owner, mentor, good friends and professional inspiration crashed into Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway. In the blink of an eye, Dale Earnhardt was gone, killed instantly after contact with Sterling Marlin, then Ken Schrader, and finally the outer retaining wall.
It was later confirmed in a nearby hospital that Earnhardt was completely unresponsive when rescue and medical teams arrived at the scene moments after the accident. A statement from NASCAR and hospital officials said the seven-time champion died of a basilar skull fracture suffered when his head snapped forward when his car hit the wall. Doctors said there was nothing they could do, no matter how quickly Earnhardt was introduced to them. The impact, they said at the time, was overwhelming.
At first, Waltrip only learned that Earnhardt, third, had crashed seconds after the checkered flag. For no reason not to, the (FINALLY! OUF!) First-time winner happily walked to Victory Lane for a boisterous celebration. Later, starting to worry, he did the mandatory media sessions in the press gallery and broadcast speakers. He grew increasingly worried when Earnhardt wasn’t around at one point with a long-awaited hug and handshake. It was perhaps an hour after the accident that he learned the horrible truth.
“The worst day of my life” is how Waltrip described this Sunday afternoon and that night in Automatic week. “It went from best to worst like that.” Later, in a broad media interview, he added, “I think everything happens for a reason. If I could change the story or change the life, the hug I would have received from Dale after the race that day would have been the best hug I have ever had in my life.
Now 58, well-known and widely regarded as a lovable but somewhat bossy TV personality, he was asked what comes to his mind first when the 2001 Daytona 500 is mentioned: his victory or the death of Earnhardt?
“It’s definitely Dale Sr.,” he said without hesitation. “I think of Dale because this loss was so much more important than my victory. I am Christian. I believe we’re going to heaven, and I believe when Dale Jr. and I started off from Turn 4 at Daytona (run 1-2 and just finish that way) I think Dale Sr. had a smile on his face. his face.
“And if I leave this world with a smile on my face, I don’t know how many people can say that. Usually when you go it is not good. And when he went, it was really good. This is where the title of the book (2019) and film (“The Blink of an Eye”) comes from. There is a bible verse that says if you believe you will be in the presence of the Lord in the twinkling of an eye. And I know Dale was a believer, and that means he saw his son and his friend win the Daytona 500, and he was in heaven in the blink of an eye.
On a related note… an editor for Forbes magazine once asked Waltrip to explain the emotions of that day. “There’s really no way to tell you what it looked like,” he replied. “Nothing can compare. You think you’ve had the best day of your life, and then you start to get clues that something is exactly wrong.
“It’s 30 or 40 minutes later and you still haven’t seen your boyfriend, the guy who was a big reason you won. You start asking questions and asking yourself questions. And then, finally, I found out that Dale was dead. I don’t know how to sum it up otherwise. It went from the best day to the worst. Today people say, ‘What a bittersweet breed.’ But I don’t remember the sweet part. In short, it was only a hard day.
Consider everything that had happened before
Waltrip, 22 at the time, followed his famous brother, Darrell, into the Cup in 1985. He was casual and articulate, an often goofy, fun-loving and harmless extrovert, much like old DW. The problem was, he lacked the piloting skills of the old DW. When Darrell said he was too busy to help Michael get started, the kid went karting on his own. He moved from Kentucky to North Carolina and lived briefly with Richard Petty, who suggested he skip Xfinity and go straight to Cup. After four good seasons in the Darlington Dash / Baby Grand Series, he took Petty’s advice.
He’s won races and a championship in this feed series, good enough to take a Cup lap with popular owner Chuck Rider. They stayed together from 1986 to 1995 before Waltrip moved 1996-1998 with Wood Brothers Racing, 1999 with Jim Mattei and 2000 with Jim Smith. He landed the job of his dreams in 2001, joining the well-connected DEI organization of Earnhardt. That year, the Daytona 500 was his first start with DEI, teaming up with Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park in Chevrolets. As usual for the previous 18 years, Earnhardt Sr. drove the No.3 Chevrolet in its last race for Richard Childress Racing.
As for what followed …
Despite losing his heart and soul at Daytona Beach, DEI continued to race until 2008. He used 15 riders in those 13 seasons, four of which combined for 24 wins. (Earnhardt Jr., Park and Waltrip combined for five wins in 2001 alone). In total, Earnhardt Jr. had 17 of DEI’s 24 total wins, Waltrip had four, Park had two, and Martin Truex Jr. one.
Waltrip left DEI after the 2005 season. At that time, Park was out of the race with a head injury and Earnhardt Jr. was driving for Hendrick Motorsports. (DCI closed its doors after the 2008 season; six drivers shared four cars this season without a win). Waltrip drove a year for Doug Bawel, then fielded his own midfield team for eight years. He did a handful of what amounted to ceremonial departures from 2010 to 2016, then retired at age 54 after leaving in 2017.
His stats: four superspeedway wins in 784 starts for 10 owners between 1985 and 2017. He also won 11 Xfinity races in 279 starts and one Truck Series race in nine starts. In addition to his four Cup victories, he also won three pointless exhibition races, two 150-mile Daytona qualifying races and races in the ARCA, K&N West and Menard series.
But wait … there is more
• His victory in the 2001 Daytona 500 made Waltrip the sixth driver (at this point, he’s now eight) to claim his first 500 Cup victory. Others: Tiny Lund in 1963, Mario Andretti in 1967, Pete Hamilton in 1970, Derrike Cope in 1990, Sterling Marlin in 1994, Waltrip in 2001, Trevor Bayne in 2011 and Michael McDowell in 2021.
• Darrell and Michael Waltrip are among nine groups of brothers with Cup Series victories. The others: Terry and Bobby Labonte, Jeff and Ward Burton, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Tim, Fonty and Bob Flock, Herb and Donald Thomas, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Benny and Phil Parsons, and Brett and Geoffrey Bodine.
• Waltrip is one of 36 drivers with victories in NASCAR’s top three series. He started the “Triple Crown” effort with an Xfinity victory at Dover in September 1988. He went on to win the Cup at Daytona Beach in February 2001 and the Truck Series at Daytona Beach in February 2011.
• Waltrip was not only the Darlington Dash (Baby Grand) champion in 1983, but he was also his most popular driver in 1983 and 1984. In total, he made 33 starts in the 1982-83-84 seasons. -85, earning eight wins (six in his championship season), with 17 top-5, 19 top-10 and three poles.