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Remembering that tragic day at Daytona ten years ago

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Daytona Beach, FL (Sports Network) - On that clear, cool and windy day at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2001, a crowd of more than 150,000 race fans were on hand at the iconic 2.5-mile speedway for the 43rd running of the Daytona 500.

It was classic, white-knuckle racing at Daytona, with at times three and almost four-wide battles for the lead. In what was turning out to be one of NASCAR's greatest races of all time suddenly turned into the sport's darkest moment when its biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, died in an accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Michael Waltrip, who made his first start with Earnhardt's team, finally claimed his maiden win in NASCAR's top-tier series. It took him 463 starts to do it. Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., crossed the line second to give Dale Earnhardt Inc. a 1-2 finish in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the year.

Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 for the first and only time in 1998, ran a distant third to Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. just seconds before his fatal head- on collision into the high-banked turn four wall at Daytona. There was no response from Earnhardt when his Richard Childress Racing pit crew attempted to communicate with him after his famed black-colored No.3 Chevrolet came to a rest on the frontstretch apron.

Michael Waltrip chronicled the events of the 2001 Daytona 500 in his book, "In the Blink of an Eye."
It ended up being a bittersweet celebration for Waltrip in Daytona's Victory Lane. His boss wasn't there to give him that attaboy pat on the back.

"I like to think of the positives of that day, and that was the last thing that Dale saw on this earth was me and Dale Jr. driving off to win the Daytona 500," Waltrip recently said. "As a car owner now, that would be one of the coolest things ever if my cars were driving off to win the Daytona 500. So that's where I know [Dale Sr.] was in the last seconds."

Waltrip chronicled the events of the 2001 Daytona 500 in his book, "In the Blink of an Eye," which hit the shelves at book stores earlier this month.

As the sun began to set and the air temperature significantly dropped, Daytona had turned into a somber place. News of Earnhardt's death spread like wildfire before NASCAR made an official announcement.

With members of the press packed like sardines in a can inside Daytona's old and cramped Benny Kahn media center, NASCAR President Mike Helton uttered at the beginning of his address, "This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make. But after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."

Earnhardt's fatal crash continued to be a major news story worldwide in the days that followed. Thousands of his loyal fans gathered at Daytona International Speedway, as well as DEI and RCR's race shops in North Carolina, to pay their respects to him.

The White House issued a statement from President George W. Bush four days after Earnhardt's death. President Bush said, "Dale was an American icon who made contributions to his sport. Dale's legacy will live on for millions of Americans. He was an inspiration to many."

Earnhardt's legacy does live on ten years later.

Track officials have planned a fan salute for Earnhardt during Sunday's Daytona 500. Officials are asking fans who attend the race to observe a moment of silence during the third lap.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how my father's remembered and honored throughout the week," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will start on the pole for the Daytona 500 after posting the fastest lap in last Sunday's qualifying.

If Earnhardt Jr. were to win the Daytona 500 on the tenth anniversary of his father's death, it would make for one of the best feel-good stories in NASCAR.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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