February the 18th 2011. It’s 10 years to the day since Dale Earnhardt lost his life chasing the Daytona 500. The winner that fateful day was Michael Waltrip, his first 500 victory overshadowed by the death of his car owner. Waltrip has taken a win in the 500 since, but he truly exercised the ghosts of 2001 by claiming victory in the Camping World Truck series at Daytona on the tenth anniversary of what must rank as the most bitter-sweet day of his career and indeed his life. Earnhardt Jnr always has the eyes of the fans on him, but Mikey Waltrip has shouldered some of the burden of Dale Snr’s loss too, “Someone said, ‘I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.’ I said, ‘Well, I can. I live it every day.'”
During the pre-race show Michael was reliving the events that changed Nascar forever, musing with his brother Darrell Waltrip about their roller coaster relationship with Earnhardt that went from feuding to friendship. Darrell spoke of Dale, by this point a seven time champion, putting his arms round him and offering his former nemesis help with a career in terminal decline. The younger Waltrip poignantly added with reference to the win his boss never saw, “I kept waiting for that hug.”
Dale Earnhardt may not have lived to see his driver win his first race after 463 attempts, but the fans have lived with the memory of February 18th 2001. Ten years on and Michael Waltrip gave them a beautiful moment at the end of a brutal race. Having never taken victory in a Truck race before, Waltrip’s steed for this race was black in tribute to The Intimidator and it proudly carried the number 15 on its flanks, the digits he took to Victory Lane for Earnhardt Inc. at the Great American Race.
The stars were aligned, but Waltrip had to survive not one, but two ‘Big Ones’ that left only five cars without damage. Elliot Sadler led the race on the final restart but Waltrip held his nerve, calmly slotted in behind him and then hustled his way past on the final dash to the flag to claim as emotional a win as we’ve seen at the Speedway. And they’re all emotional wins there.
Waltrip may have been aided in this dramatic last-second charge by his rear wing partially collapsing on the final lap to allow him slightly more top speed, but he was always at the sharp end and it would be churlish to suggest he couldn’t have done it otherwise. Maybe it’s one of those new-fangled movable wings from F1! Expect a fine and a slapped wrist, but don’t expect Nascar to write him out of the results.
Meanwhile Dale’s grandson Jeffrey claimed seventh, the best of his short career, the cherry on the cake. As the familiar Waltrip and Earnhardt names rode high and turned back the clock, there was a reminder of just how much Nascar has changed this past decade as Jennifer Jo Cobb finished 6th, a landmark result for a lady racer. Danica Patrick lines up fourth for today’s Nationwide race at the Speedway, so we could see that new record for female stock car drivers broken within 24 hours.
The commentators in the booth included big brother Darrell who spoke on the radio to his little brother within seconds of the flag. “I’m just thankful,” Michael said tearfully before modestly adding in Victory Lane, “I came here to celebrate his life, I didn’t come to celebrate a win.”
It was less a fairytale, more a Shakespearian tragedy, although the universe did what it could to tidy up the mess left behind when Nascar’s shining star lost his light on the biggest stage of the sport. Daytona is a story in itself written over 60 years, a page turner that never fails to enthrall. The next two chapters will be written tonight and on Sunday, make sure you catch it. If you didn’t see it live make sure you watch the magic that unfolded on February 18th 2011 in the video above.